The late great astronomer Carl Sagan was once famously lampooned by Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show for saying “billions and billions” on the hit PBS show Cosmos in a unique voice when describing astronomical distances.
Well, we are beyond astronomy now, beyond billions and billions and into the unreal realm of trillions.
The Federal Reserve recently announced that it was injecting another $1 trillion into the financial system. China owns U.S. Treasuries to the tune of 1.4 trillion rapidly weakening dollars. On April 2, Congress approved President Barack Obama’s $3.6 trillion budget. New estimates from Congressional Budget Office project U.S. federal budget deficits of $9.3 trillion over the next decade if (shock) Obama gives away his trillions in new spending.
These are sums of unimaginable magnitude. And yet they are thrown about as if everyone has the slightest conception of what they mean.
A trillion is a thousand billions. It is a million millions. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to put this number in perspective, pointing out that you could spend a million dollars a day from the birth of Jesus until today and still not have spent a trillion dollars.
Or to put it another way: A stack of thousand dollar bills totaling $1 trillion would soar 68 miles into the sky. If the C.B.O. is correct in its projection of Obama deficits, it means we’ll be shoveling the equivalent of a 611 mile-high stack of thousand dollar bills out the door (a sum, it is considered impolite to mention, we do not have).
Much ink has been spilled of late about how the governing elite have failed our country in bringing on this great crisis. Patrick J. Bucahan, for one, in a recent column indicted “this generation of political and financial elites,” which has “proven itself unfit to govern a great nation.” No doubt there is plenty of blame to go around — honest mistakes and outright graft and imbecility from the best and brightest of Washington and Wall Street.
But I wonder if this isn’t only part of the problem. I wonder if the economy and its attendant and manifold complications aren’t now so large and complex that humans, whose minds only recently evolved the capacity to count beyond our fingers and toes, are simply incapable of fully grasping, much less solving them.
If true, what then? The Enlightenment and all the scientific, economic, and political progress that it predicated, was based on the proposition that Man can understand his place in the universe and thereby control his fate. What happens to that dream if it dawns on us that we don’t, and can’t even fully understand our own financial transactions?
The consequences are predictable and could be catastrophic: a collapse of faith in the leadership classes, a massive anti-intellectual uprising, the beginnings of which we may be already witnessing.
And why not? A farmer has very bit as much of an understanding of “trillion” as the elites who populate the government, and is not nearly as dangerous — at least the farmer would have the sense to know he doesn’t know.
The sense of unreality in the ether is reinforced by President Obama, who has seemed either disinclined or incapable of fully staffing his Treasury Department in the midst of a global financial meltdown. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, the tax collector in chief, is himself a tax scofflaw, resulting in his recent payment of $42,702 in back taxes and interest. It’s as if the president is saying, “See? It doesn’t matter who we put in there, or even if there’s anyone there at all.”
To reinforce the point, Obama goes on The Tonight Show, laughing it up with Jay Leno and ridiculing special-needs children while the world economy goes up in flames.
Classy. And unreal.
Carl Sagan took Johnny Carson’s impression of him in customary good humor. He would occasionally point out, however, that he never in fact said “billions and billions” in Cosmos; what he became so famous for saying he hadn’t actually said. Carson’s affectionate send-up was not based on reality — and neither is our economic policy.
But at least Carson was funny.