Saturday, July 4, 2009

Counting Trillions

A much more fashionable number is now on the horizon, or closer. The trillion is almost upon us.
Carl Sagan, Billions and Billions, 1997.

+ $ 11,373, 059, 000,000.00
US National Debt as of 4:40 pm EDT July 4 2009--last digits moving so quickly that it is impossible to record them accurately.

It's the fourth of July in America--of course it's also the fourth of July everywhere else this side of the international dateline, even if "4th of July" doesn't signify National Holiday of Extreme Importance in every other place. Fireworks, fired up barbecues, inflamed rhetoric, blazing heat: the fourth of July is a candescent, enthusiastic holiday--this year, even North Korea has been eager to join the party.

Although it is already July 5 there, Kim Jong Il's regime in Pyongyang has, as promised (or threatened), delivered a few missiles into the atmosphere to commemorate the date. --But whether they've hit their mark--which is a matter more of political than ballistic accuracy--though surely both--remains to be seen.

Given so much glitter, smolder and pyrotechnics, it seems fitting to duck into a bit of shadow (plenty of that here in Nova Scotia-incendiary shadow, we're having thunderstorms) and celebrate the day by contemplating the problem of how to count to a trillion--or several.

This exercise is, of course, inspired by the awesome--note strictly correct use of that word--spectre of America's blistering rampaging wildfire of debt. Indeed the world's.

What does it mean to say the US national debt stands at more than 10 trillion dollars, that defaults on subprime mortgages are already in excess of $1 trillion, or that US government bailout packages promise nearly 1 trillion dollars of aid? What do such figures mean in the context of an expected US GDP of more than $14 trillion in 2009, or an overall mortgage market in the US, by mid-2008, of some $10.6 trillion? Are wildfires always only terrible? One might extend the metaphor more precisely by asking what, in addition to destruction, comes of all of that smoke and fire? Indeed, is such a metaphor even appropriate, apposite? Who knows?

Although today I'm simply meditating on the number 1 trillion, and trying to fathom its magnitude, it's worth keeping such questions in mind--large numbers on their own aren't scary really; what matters is what these trillions mean. Of course, this is exactly what no one really knows or agrees about. For gold standard enthusiasts, for example, a debt of trillions mean we're all going to hell in a handcart--or at the very least we will soon be buying bread with bills by the handcart--but this is not likely to be true. On the other hand, these trillions probably do mean--already seem to have meant--quite a bit of pain in the US and elsewhere, particularly for the "bottom 2 billion," those worldwide who are already hungry and living in very difficult conditions. Very far from "nothing to worry about" then.


It used to be, not so long ago, that "trillions" were numbers invoked by scientists or science writers, not ordinary citizens or scientific laypeople--unless we were making jokes. But now that it is everywhere a figure for institutional financial obligations, I think it would be fair to say that we are pretty well all--scientists, mathematicians, bankers, poets, farmers, fishermen and taxpayers alike--a bit confused by the magnitudes involved. For starters, even before we try to think about what it might mean, what kind of number is this trillion or two or ten that taxpayers in the US--and elsewhere--seem to be on the hook to pay?

Trillions clearly don't trouble us when they refer to the number of beneficial nematodes in a particular unit of ground; likewise, we accept, without too much worry one way or the other, the fact that distances in space are regularly measured in trillions of miles--there are 6 trillion miles in a light year, and "nearby" star Alpha Centauri, is for example, some 25 trillion miles--or just over 4 light years--from our sun. And while it may trouble some to learn that something like ten trillion bacteria, give or take a few, live in each of our digestive tracts, most of us are prepared to accept that magnificent number as a measure of health--as Picasso put it, although he had something other than bacteria in mind: "we are, each of us, a colony." But trillions of dollars....of debt? Just what is that? What does it mean? It seems unimaginable. Stars and trillions may "have a natural affinity," as Carl Sagan put it in his last book Billions and Billions, but we start to feel a little bit funny when trillions and money, especially money owing get mixed up together.

This may be because what first leaps to mind when we think of money and trillions are terrible examples of hyperinflation from the last hundred years--Zimbabwe's new and, strictly speaking, utterly worthless $100 trillion dollar note is simply the latest egregious illustration of currency collapse.

There are other famous cases of such monetary collapse: in 1923, for example--good years in the US, but the peak of disastrous postwar hyperinflation in Germany--1 US dollar was worth 4.2 trillion marks; to mail a letter required 50 trillion marks, and banknotes with a face value of 100 trillion marks were printed. Inflation was so steep, rising hour upon hour, that at one point, workers were apparently paid three times a day. Family members would rush out to buy what they could with the money in hand before it became still more worthless.

This is the period that inspired the infamous figure for economic catastrophe, in which a wheelbarrow full of banknotes is traded for a single loaf of bread. Worse images still can be found--for example, a woman burning money because it makes for better fuel than anything it could purchase:

Similar conditions obtain today in Zimbabwe, which on January 16, 2009 printed notes like the one above with a face value of 100,000,000,000,000, or 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollars. This was after a redenomination last year (1 August 2008) that removed 10 zeros from the currency: $Z10 billion was thus, suddenly $Z1. In old Zimbabwean dollars then, the new 100 trillion note would have had to have been, as my friend John Roston helpfully calculated for me, a $1 septillion note--$1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. I don't know about you, but I can't see numbers that large--at this point it becomes more useful to think about that number with all of its terrifying 0s as 10 to the 24th power.

If your head is starting to hurt (and it should, or at the very least your heart), here are some more figures for you: inflation is so bad in Zimbabwe that prices have been doubling every twenty-four hours. According to Steve Hanke, Professor of Applied Economics at Johns Hopkins and a Senior Fellow of the Cato Institute, in November 2008 (the latest period for which he could verify figures), the overall inflation rate in Zimbabwe was roughly 516 quintillion percent (516,000,000,000,000,000,000%); monthly inflation for November 2008 was 13.2 billion percent, or a daily rate of 92%. The only country on record with worse inflation was Hungary, which in July 1946 faced a daily rate of 195%, or a doubling of prices every 15.6 hours. No question about it, such hyperinflation is utterly disastrous for the population affected.

But before you panic, get a grip on yourself. We've been comparing apples and oranges here. Debt is not inflation, let alone hyperinflation--or to be more precise, the two--the US and worldwide debts in the trillions and inflation are not (yet) linked. And although there is plenty of argument to suggest that currently rising national government debtloads and inflation are likely bedfellows in the near future, no one seems to think that hyperinflation of the US dollar is a likely consequence of the financial meltdown of the last year.

--However, for a marvelous and hair-raising read, you might see John Lanchester's recent (28 May 2009) pessimistic assessment of the effect of the state of Britain's --and America'--banks and financial industries on future national endeavours in the London Review of Books. As he states, rather plainly, "the consequences of the [banks'] unravelling will be with us for a long time, in the most basic way: we will be paying for it. Not metaphorically, but literally: instead of schools and medicines and roads and libraries, huge chunks of money will go to [banks'] balance sheet[s]." Debt payment is painful, but it is not unbridled, out-of-control national collapse. No matter what the gold-standard fanatics say.

So far so good, but we are not really any further ahead in the attempt to imagine what kind of magnitude one or several trillion is--let alone 516 quintillion or 1 septillion. We might simply be, at once, a bit more scared and a bit more comforted by the spectres thrown up by Zimbabwe today or Germany in 1923, in which 1 trillion seems a laughably small--if still utterly unintelligible--number.

What about that number 1,000,000,000,000 then?

Which elements, aside from the flora and fauna of our own intestines, might help us put this number into a more human, which is to say ordinary, manageable, imagineable scale? Stars, galaxies, solar systems and staggering inflation clearly don't work on this front. CNN a few months back suggested that if you (hypothetically speaking) made a stack of $1 trillion US dollar bills, the pile would reach a third of the way to the moon. It's a good figure, but it doesn't really get us any closer to imagining what 1 trillion is really beyond something staggeringly, wildly, unintelligibly large.

Suppose we start with a small unit, one you know well, like that fleeting unit of time we call the second:

1 million seconds amounts to 13 days.
1 billion seconds amounts to some 31 years.
1 trillion seconds is 31,546 years and
11 trillion seconds is something like 342,092 years. You'll be glad to know that in geologic or evolutionary measures on earth this figure is still squarely within "recent" time, the Cenozoic or "new age" post-dinosaur period.

Discouraged yet? That didn't really help, did it? Here are some more "visioning" exercises designed to utilize your ordinary sense of time. We'll measure off a trillion using the unit of the hour this time:

There are 8700 hours in a year.
1 million hours ago was in 1885.
1 billion hours ago, humans did not yet exist as a planetary life form.

I'm not quite sure how to calculate 1 trillion hours ago, let alone 11+ trillion, but I'll give it a try, showing you my work. Let's start with the fact that many estimates put the age of the earth at around 20 Galactic years or 5000 million years (5 billion years). How many hours ago was that if there are roughly 8700 hours in a year?

5 x 1 billion x 8700 = 43,500,000,000,000.

If I've done my math correctly--and you should check it, don't count on it!--43 trillion hours ago give or take a few millenia, the earth was a spinning gaseous lump. I think, if I'm getting my time lines right and my math (some large assumptions to make right there), 11 trillion hours ago multi-cellular organisms might have begun appearing on earth.

What can we conclude from this exercise? One trillion is a VERY large magnitude.

Should we be frightened of trillion dollar bailouts, national debts or bank balance sheets showing such amounts? Perhaps. That remains to be seen. If, as Marike said the other night, Obama can "throw good money after bad," money for projects that will build infrastructure and well-being for ordinary people nation-wide and elsewhere, not just money to fill large holes in the value of banks' and failed companies' assets, then maybe all this debt will add up to something that matters.

As John Lanchester argued in his lament for how much we've wasted with the banks, we have been living in a period in which economic thinking, and the example of the economy has trumped nearly every other kind of thinking about value in the public sphere. "The economic metaphor came to be applied to every aspect of modern life....[But] in fields such as education, equality of opportunity, health, employee's rights, the social contract and culture, the first conversation to happen should be about values; then you have the conversation about costs. In Britain," he says, "for the last 20 to 30 years, that has all been the wrong way round" (Lanchester, "It's Finished" LRB (28 May 2009).

It's not just in Britain that value, or values, have been collapsed to dollar or pound figures, forestalling difficult, divisive and essential debates about what we need to do to create the sorts of societies, the sort of world in which we want to live. It's been easier to pretend everything can be assigned a number and it will all come clear then. But as our trillions are finally showing--even economic numbers, when they get this large, are no longer apparently clear. We've come full circle then; we have to have some conversations about values in order to sort out how to weight the magnitudes of our trillions.

Happy Fourth of July!

I welcome all additional suggestions and corrections, as well, of course as debate!

Other large number visioning projects may be found at the following sites:
This project uses the penny as a basic unit of dimension; it would, for example, take 1.8 trillion pennies to fill up a space as large as the Empire State Building in New York. Keep in mind as you think about this example that 1.2 trillion pennies is not yet $1 trillion dollars! I am indebted to this site for my how many seconds is a trillion examples.

My images come from the following sites:
Woman burning money

Zimbabwean money and wallpaper

All other links appear embedded in the text above.

And thanks so much to all of those who responded to my call for examples of trillions--in particular big thanks to Marike Finlay-de Monchy, as always, for helping me to keep my head on straight, to John Roston, Jules Jung and Barry Leonard, who came through with fabulous examples, and to my Uncle Bob Gutches, who send me lovely wishful photos of panda rescues in China--their number nowhere near 1 trillion, but heartening as I contemplated the the holes in my knowledge and our economies.

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