Fun With Bailout Numbers
The financial pages discover the word quadrillion.
You know the economy is in trouble when economists start bandying around numeric terms previously associated with astronomy and particle physics. You can't open a newspaper these days without seeing the phrase "trillion dollars" placed in disturbing proximity to the word losses. According to the Nexis database, these terms appeared together in 1,774 English-language news reports between July and October 2008. During the same three-month period in 2007, they appeared in only 541, and during the same period in 2006, they appeared in only 316. Those were the good old days!
You may not even remember from grade-school arithmetic what comes after trillion. It isn't kajillion. (That's just a whimsical slang term for "unimaginably high number.") It's quadrillion. The phrase "quadrillion dollars" and the word losses appeared together in only two English-language news reports between July and October 2008, so no need to panic just yet. During the same three-month periods in 2007 and 2006, they appeared in one.
After quadrillion, you get quintillion, sextillion, and septillion. I'm relieved to report that the phrases "quintillion dollars," "sextillion dollars," and "septillion dollars" have yet to appear together with the word losses in any English-language news reports that I can find in Nexis. After septillion comes octillion, nonillion, and decillion. The phrase "octillion dollars" appears only once in Nexis (in a Sept. 27 snippet from the blog the Volokh Conspiracy). The phrases "nonillion dollars" and "decillion dollars" appear not at all, which suggests that even at this late date they defy human conceptualization. According to Slate's search engine, I am the first person ever to use any numeric terms above quintillion in this magazine. (Eat my dust, Chris Suellentrop, Daniel Engber, Emily Bazelon, John Dickerson, and Dahlia Lithwick!)
What are these large numbers that the financial pages throw around as they describe the credit crisis, and what relation do they bear one another? Allow me to attempt a crude summary.
The $700 billion potential price tag on the just-passed bank bail—ahem, rescue package—constitutes roughly one-quarter of the annual total cost of operating the U.S. government, which by last year had reached $2.9 trillion. The $2.9 trillion that went out exceeded by $276 billion the $2.6 trillion that came in, mostly from income taxes. Ten months later, the Congressional Budget Office today puts the budget deficit at $438 billion. To cover the difference between spending and revenue, the Treasury borrows money, which leaves the government in debt. Right now, the national debt is $10.2 trillion. That number is so big that a National Debt Clock in Times Square had to eliminate its dollar sign last month to make room for an extra digit. The national debt is approaching the size of the entire U.S. economy. According to the Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis, the U.S. gross domestic product for 2008 is $14.3 trillion. Of that, $10.1 trillion went to personal consumption. If everybody in the United States decided that starting today they wouldn't consume anything for one year and that instead they would set all that money aside in a piggy bank the size of the Houston Astrodome, that still wouldn't be quite enough money to pay off the national debt.
(Forgive me if I'm starting to sound like the rector who describes eternity in James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—"and imagine that at the end of every million years a little bird came to that mountain and carried away in its beak a tiny grain of that sand").
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.