Trillion: The New Billion


I can still recall the days when people used the term "billion" so infrequently that, for clarity, they spelled it out: "I said billion, with a B."

Back then comedians mocked Carl Sagan because he talked about "billions of stars" as if it were, you know, an impressive number.

Now, trillion is the new billion. And a million? Let's just say "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" doesn't titillate TV viewers - or bankers - the way it once did.

Congress considers a $700 billion bailout, plus a few billion here and there and, as the late Sen. Everett Dirksen famously concluded, "pretty soon you're talking about real money." With stunning casualness, politicians frequently round it to "a trillion." In the same way, expenses in Iraq are often said to total a trillion - if not now, then soon enough that it doesn't really matter. And the national debt? Why bother counting after 10 trillion?

What is a trillion, anyway? A trillion seconds ago, recorded human history had not begun. A trillion minutes ago, tool-making humanoids were emerging. A trillion hours ago, dinosaurs thrived and the Atlantic Ocean was forming. A trillion days ago, complex single-celled life was developing. And a trillion weeks ago, there was no planet Earth.

It's been estimated that counting to a trillion would take over 190,000 years. If we were to pay off a $10 trillion debt at the rate of a dollar per second, it would require 320,000 years - without interest.

Other parts of the world have chosen to give their politicians more breathing room when it comes to talking about big numbers.

In Great Britain, France and Germany, for example, a billion has twice as many zeros as a million (bi); a trillion has three times as many zeros (tri). Thus, in Europe, an American trillion is called a billion. And a European trillion? We call that a quintillion - a number followed by 18 zeros.

It's only a matter of time before U.S. politicians start talking about a sextillion of this (21 zeros) or a vigintillion of that (63 zeros).

American travelers used to find it amusing to deal with foreign currencies that required, say, 10,000 whatevers for a cup of coffee. I remember visiting Brazil in the '80s when taxi drivers needed a daily printout to determine how many thousand Cruzeiros to collect per mile.

These were "new" Cruzeiros which differed from the "old" Cruzeiros in that the Brazilian government chopped off a few zeros so that one of the new was worth 1,000 of the old. A few years later they did it again, declaring that 1,000 new Cruzeiros would be worth one Cruzado. Soon they had to drop away three more zeros and Brazilians were given the "new" Cruzados. In 1990, these Cruzados Novos were retired, and the Cruzeiros were back; in 1993, the Cruzeiros lost another three zeros and were turned into "real" Cruzeiros.

Could it happen here? Perhaps America's $700 billion bailout debt could be coverted to, say, $7 billion "new" Pelosis.

If not devaluation, here's another thought about the bailout. Instead of giving $700 billion to banks and another $300 billion to big companies, why not send every family in America: three winter coats from L.L. Bean ($450), a Dell XPS laptop ($1,180), a GE refrigerator ($950), an Amana microwave ($380), a Sears 32-inch TV ($1,200), a Kodak digital camera ($200), plus a check for $6,000. Now that's a bailout.

Meanwhile, as recently reported, in a few months the U.S. plans to release its newly-designed pennies. Retiring the national debt will require a quadrillion of them.

© Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Monterey Herald.

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