Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Trouble With Trillions

Now that President Obama has unveiled his $3.5 trillion budget, it’s time for Americans to come to terms with this staggering number. After all, if we are to experience trillion dollar deficits for years to come, it behooves us to master the new math.

Now a million is pretty easy. It’s "1" followed by six zeros, a number that is big but easily understandable. Athletes and movie stars make millions of dollars a year and many houses are now worth more than that.

A billion is a little more difficult to comprehend but still within the realm of human comprehension. It’s a thousand millions or "1" followed by nine zeros. It’s really big but still on the outer fringes of our understanding. It’s a thousand monster homes, a hundred star athletes’ salaries or a minor government spending initiative.

A trillion, on the other hand, is beyond our everyday experience. A "1" with twelve zeros? What exactly does that mean? Someone could tell you that it’s 1012 but does that really help?

If you started counting one a second, it would take you 31,546 years to get to a trillion. If you had to eat or sleep, of course, it would take you even longer. And if you tried to say each number in full, you’d probably never finish.

So how are we going to be able to wrap our heads around this mathematical puzzle? If trillions are here to stay, it’s time we finally tried to get a handle on them.

It’s one thing to say that the U. S. federal budget is $3.5 trillion. It’s quite another thing to understand how much that really is. Remember, even Carl Sagan only claimed billions and billions of stars in a galaxy, not trillions.

One approach would be to break a trillion down into smaller, understandable units. For example, one trillion equals about 4,000 Alex Rodriguezs or 400 Oprahs. Or it’s roughly twenty Bill Gates or ten Warren Buffets. Or it’s the GDP of Mexico, India or Australia.

That way, President Obama could speak to us in a language we could all understand. Instead of announcing a two trillion dollar deficit next year, he could say that we’ll be down about forty Bill Gates, two South Koreas or a million General Motors. That’s not entirely satisfactory but it does at least give us a vague idea of where we’re heading.

As for Obama, he’s got his own numerical problems. At the rate things are going, he may soon no longer be speaking in trillions. Instead he may have to start using quadrillions or, heaven forbid, even quintillions.

To avoid a national nervous breakdown, I suggest that the President just quietly change his counting method to the old British system. That’s where a billion is a million million or what we call a trillion.

Thus, Obama could talk about a deficit in the billions of dollar and we’d never know how bad things really were. Unless, of course, he starts calling them billiards which might clue some of us into the fact that he’s using a different system. Either that or he’s doing his budgetary calculations on The White House pool table.

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