The zero is a wonderful thing. Back when the Arabs were clever, they gave the world this potent intellectual lever, and what a lever it has turned out to be!
Among other things, the zero offers a recipe for instant sublimity. A mere handful of zeros transform a humble integer into a presentiment of infinity. “Two things awe me,” said Immanuel Kant, “the starry sky above and the moral law within.” I am down in Antigua for a few days helping some friends sort out the world’s problems. There are plenty of opportunities for that sort of awe-fulness. We’re high up on a hill on a remote part of the island (far away, I am happy to say, from the recently renamed hillock, “Mount Obama”). The skies are mostly clear this time of year, just some white puffs distributed here and there to add picturesqueness to the vast expanse of cerulean above us. Gazing East, the Atlantic unfolds in what seems an infinite carpet of glittering blue. Really, of course, it is not infinite, just a few thousand miles before you wash up on the shores of West Africa. Looking out from above the shores of this tiny country, however, it is easy to feel that you are but a speck upon a speck in an engulfing vastness. Those few thousands of miles pace a huge, almost incomprehensible distance when measured against the puniness of the human body. And the nights regularly provide other occasions for awe, illuminated as they are with countless stars in a seemingly endless vault above us. “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me,” said Pascal, pondering the vastness of the heavens. And you can see why. Awe is a Janus-faced emotion, at once uplifting and diminishing. It both invigorates and chastens, reminding us both of our link with what transcends us and the unsurpassable littleness of our mortal self.
Which brings me back to zero. A million is a pretty big number. Those six zeros count out what is for us a largish sum: a million dollars, for example, is still a tidy packet, even if it is no longer the grail of sumptuous wealth as it was only a few decades past. A million seconds is 16,666 minutes, which is 277 hours, or 11 days. So a million seconds ago is a week and a bit ago.
Add a few more zeros and see what happens. A billion is a nice round number. If you happen to command a billion dollars you are richer (much!) than Croesus. A billion seconds is about 11500 days, i.e., a bit more than 30 years. “A billion here, a billion there,” said Senator Dirksen: “pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”
Indeed. And watch what happens when you add just a few naughts more. There was a popular (but not sufficiently popular, alas) bumper sticker a couple of years ago that read “It’s a good thing Obama doesn’t know what comes after ‘trillion.’” You can see why. One trillion: that’s more than a quarter of the annual budget of the United States. This year, Obama will spend about 1.3 trillion dollars more than he takes in. A trillion seconds, just to give you something to chew on, is more than 30,000 years. So far, in just 4 years, Obama has managed to increase the federal debt from less than 10 trillion (an incomprehensible number) to about 16.4 trillion (don’t even try). A second goes by in a heartbeat, the blink of an eye. Sixteen trillion seconds takes us back some 500,000 years. Pretty soon you’re talking about real money, partner. And here with have the folks we elected to represent our interests skirling about cutting $85 billion from a budget of $3.7 trillion. They are not serious people. But the damage they are doing to us — to you, to me, to our children and their children — is downright incalculable. Two great questions bruited about by the savants gathered together in this paradisal retreat is this: How long will this continue — we know it cannot go on forever, but when will it end? And even more sobering, when it does end, how will it end? In “The Hollow Men,” T. S. Eliot famously said that “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.” The pressure of more than $16 trillion dollars of debt may very well make the conclusion of this incontinent spending spree a good sight noisier.