Advice And Dissent

Or One Trillion Trillion Degrees of Separation

Everyone feels strongly about something—the environment, nuclear proliferation, the economy, wearing white after Labor Day. But who among us has the acumen to tackle issues as complex as these? It can be daunting enough understanding why a golden brown Hostess Twinkie contains red dye #40.

Now, any of us can offer an opinion on these weighty topics, but there are actually some folks who are paid to do so. Cab drivers and barbers notwithstanding, there are think tanks and lobbyists whose opinions are heard, if not solicited, by elected officials whose salaries we pay.

Occasionally, these same politicians even listen to those who elected them. And it is these representatives of the electorate who voice their opinions to each other and, time permitting, the President.


I have often been mystified at the process by which the Chief Executive culls information and forms an opinion; the various parts that form the final picture often appear to have been painted by number. So, to gain a better perspective on this high-level decision-making endeavor, I will try to determine whether a corollary drawn from my own shortsighted experience might apply to the President’s own powers of deductive reasoning. Short of that, I could always send him an email saying, “You’re on your own, buddy.”

Let’s say 4 inebriated friends and I are trying to decide where to eat tonight. So, I decide to discuss it with them, which is a friendlier gesture than simply pushing them all out the door. Then out of that 4, one person talks to the other 3, probably about me. From these remaining 3, one of the malcontents tries to coerce the other 2. This leaves one person to finally argue with the one dimwit who wasn’t smart enough to excuse himself and hide in the bathroom. And to make matters worse, each one of us follows this same routine.

Translating this influence peddling into a mathematical algorithm, that’s 5 times 4 times 3 times 2 times 1, which equals 120 (yeah, I used a calculator).

Think about that for a moment—5 people each soliciting opinions in the same manner, resulting in 120 possible conversations that yield perhaps 120 possible restaurant choices; that’s fine, but you’ve wasted a lot of time if you only end up at Sizzler’s.

Now, let’s apply this logic to current decisions made in the Oval Office. The President solicits opinions from the Vice President, the Joint Chiefs of Staff—a Chairman and Vice Chairman appointed by the President, not much wiggle room there; the Chief of Staff of the Army; the Chief of Naval Operations; the Chief of Staff of the Air Force and the Commandant of the Marine Corps—6 all told, plus all 15 cabinet appointees; that’s a total of 23 individual minds who don’t mind expressing an opinion or two, solicited or not.

If one now does the math, (substituting ‘x’ for ‘times’) that’s:

23 x 22 x 21 x 20 x 19 x 18 x 17 x 16 x 15 x 14 x 13 x 12 x 11 x 10 x 9 x 8 x 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1

This equals 2.585202e+22 on my calculator, or 2.585202 x 10 to the 22nd power, which is 2585202 followed by 22 zeros; by comparison, Snow White had only 7 dwarfs following her.

To give this value full impact, the number is presented here in its familiar form:


That’s 25.852 octillion, or to place it in the context of the national debt, 25.852 trillion trillion.

Hmm… 25.852 trillion trillion possible opinions—and I’m reaching for the Excedrin trying to figure out how much to tip the waiter.


With each member of the President’s advisory group vying for his ear, when it comes to dinner at the White House, staffers probably eschew protocol and assign seats on the basis of height. Now, I’m sure it’s likely one or two of the President’s advisers will agree on something, which could easily reduce the possible choices to, say, a few trillion.

But it seems to me that perhaps we, the electorate, when asked our opinion of President Obama’s performance in the coming months, might want to do the math ourselves and cut the President some slack.


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