THE BLOG

Give or Take a Trillion

Aug 28, 2009 | Updated May 25, 2011

I confess to be among those who have some difficulty getting my head around how much a trillion dollars is. I can remember a book I read to my daughter called How Much is a Billion that was filled with mind-boggling examples, including things like the number of seconds that have passed since Jesus was born. The Huffington Post has a fun video clip visualizing a trillion using the same kinds of illuminating examples, such as a trillion dollars is enough to buy a Starbucks Latte every day for the next 900 million years. The only problem with these kinds of illustrations is that I can't get my head around 900 million years either, let alone roughly 3 billion lattes.

The punch line of this little clip is that as big as a trillion is (what some suggest is becoming the 'new billion'), the current bailout is 10 times bigger. Can you imagine how big a zillion must be? It seems to me that when we enter the realm of staggering numbers that are beyond comprehension such as these, money stops meaning anything. This could be a good thing, since when we exceed the limits of what we can comprehend we often transform our relationship to whatever we're talking about. For example, if we start seriously thinking about infinity, the concept of time begins to disappear and we start to feel like we're entering the "Twilight Zone."

As far as I know, most of us (including economists) relate to money as something that is scarce. That is what makes it valuable. In a purely physical sense, this is a valid perception. But money is also just an idea that human beings have agreed to use to exchange goods and services. Money is money because over the course of history we've agreed what it is, its value, the rules we play by and even the systems we use to control it. It is also a way we keep score and assess our position in the economic pecking order. Ultimately, we relate to it as a primary source of power in the world.

But what happens to our concept of money when we start to think and act at the trillion-dollar level? If you don't have any money, does it matter whether you are a million or a billion or a trillion in debt? Where do you reach the limit of 'reality' where money has no more meaning that the colored paper we push around in a game of Monopoly? Perhaps more importantly, at what point do we have to confront the fact that maybe it is the concept of money that is bankrupt?

This may sound strange, but history is lined with concepts that we once believed were 'truths' and essential to our survival and which have long since been discarded for one reason or another. For example, there was a time when literally everyone, at least in the European world, believed in in the 'divine right of kings', the origin of man and infallibility of the church, and that the Sun revolved around the earth. There was even a time when human beings, specifically some aboriginal peoples, lived in a state of sufficiency and even abundance. I don't suggest that we will or should ever return to a world without money, but I do imagine a world in which our relationship to money is transformed from scarcity to sufficiency.

The fact that we're borrowing and spending tens of trillions suggests that there is plenty of money to go around. The Keynesian philosophy behind the bailout is that, as long as people are buying and selling and there is enough money moving through the system to keep people alive and working in a positive direction, then it is only a matter of time before the system returns to some sort of stability and people can once again begin to repay whatever debt has been accumulated. The alternative is to declare bankruptcy now and start over. The problem with that is that declaring bankruptcy means breaking your promise, which in turn destroys trust. At the end of the day, this still may happen. At some moment everyone in the world says, "STOP, none of us have enough money to ever realistically expect to repay what we owe and therefore we will zero out all our accounts and begin again." According to recent articles in the financial press, this is already happening with some individuals who are refusing to pay down credit card debt and basically saying that they are no longer willing to endlessly pay against a debt in which interest accrued and is growing the total due faster than their capacity to ever pay it off. This is not much different than the situation in many developing nations where higher and higher percentages of their GNP is spent paying debt, leaving insufficient resources for health and welfare and, therefore, requiring the nations to borrow even more.

I don't have any idea what will happen as we start thinking in terms of trillions as easily as we used to think in terms of millions. When I began my career, a millionaire was the ultimate standard for being rich. It was only thirty years ago that the first billionaires appeared. Will we see a trillionaire in our lifetime?

I do think that if we add enough zeros to whatever we think has value, it will stop having value. When that happens, we will create something else that has value. I hope that the 'something' else has to do with human values such as compassion, love, service, integrity and honor. If we can begin to traffic in such a marketplace of committed values, then perhaps we are one step closer to creating a world that works for everyone.