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October 15, 2008 > Billions and billions boggle the brain

Billions and billions boggle the brain

Submitted By AP Wire Service, By Erin McClam, AP National Writer

NEW YORK (AP), Oct 12 _ There's an old saying attributed to Everett Dirksen, the Illinois senator who dotted his speeches with colorful rants against government borrowing: A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money.

Not these days, you're not.

The thicket of figures hurled at Americans since Wall Street began to melt down last month boggles the mind and crashes the calculator. We are utterly numb from numbers.

Bailout of the U.S. financial system: $700 billion. Sweeteners to get the bill through Congress: $140 billion. Federal loan to insurer AIG: $85 billion. John McCain government mortgage buyback proposal: $300 billion.

Billions and billions and billions and billions, tossed out there as quickly and casually as if by a Carl Sagan impersonator on speed. The Fed announced Wednesday it would loan AIG an additional $37.5 billion, and we hardly flinched.

It was not always this way. Five years ago, early in the Iraq war and at about this time of year, the Bush administration infuriated opponents by calling for an additional $87 billion in war funding.

Yes, the $87 billion helped do in John Kerry, who voted for it before he voted against it. But the point was that $87 billion was a jaw-dropping amount. That Halloween, people actually wrote ``$87 billion'' on T-shirts and went as blank checks.

Now, in the Age of the Meltdown, the numbers we are asked to comprehend are so massive that it takes something even larger to get our attention.

Here's something: Between the stock market peak of Oct. 9, 2007, and exactly one year later _ which is to say, encompassing the Wall Street free fall _ $8.3 trillion was vaporized.

Write it out and it looks like a spill on the Cheerios aisle: $8,300,000,000,000.

And that's still less than the national debt:
$10,200,700,000,000 and growing.

That's right: Trillion is the new billion.

How are we supposed to get our minds around all this? How are we to avoid an embarrassment worthy of Dr. Evil in the ``Austin Powers'' movies, who was cryogenically unfrozen after decades and gamely made the diabolical suggestion that he hold the world ransom for ... a puny $1 million?

(His evil advisers gently told him $1 million was not exactly a lot of money anymore. Come to think of it, even his second suggestion, a way more evil $100 billion, wouldn't raise an eyebrow on Wall Street now.)

Ronald Reagan had an idea. In 1981, to call attention to a national debt approaching $1 trillion, he asked Americans to imagine a stack of thousand-dollar bills 67 miles high.

Setting aside the limitations this posed in terms of both space travel and the availability of thousand-dollar bills, the comparison seems almost quaint. The national debt just passed $10 trillion _ so big the additional front-end digit of ``1'' cannibalized what used to be the dollar sign on the National Debt Clock in New York.

Another suggestion comes from John Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University and author of ``A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper.'' He suggests thinking of the gobsmacking numbers in terms of time: 1 million seconds is about 111/2 days, 1 billion seconds 32 years, 1 trillion seconds 32,000 years.

Almost long enough for your 401(k) to recover.

``It might help to think of these quantities in terms of jail sentences,'' Paulos said in an e-mail interview.

OK, bad example.

And one small problem. While it is by far the most popular line ever attributed to Dirksen, there is no record anywhere that he ever actually said it, according to Frank H. Mackaman of the Dirksen Congressional Center in Pekin, Ill.

Oh, the senator hated excessive government debt, all right. He told stories about potholes and about cats trapped in wells. The moral: Never dig deeper to get out. He just didn't make that one famous quip.

No matter. The fact remains that whether it's the federal bailout or chaos in the market or new tax breaks, it's not just a billion here, a billion there anymore. We are definitely talking real money _ trillions of it.

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