Page last updated at 12:03 GMT, Saturday, 28 February 2009

America's trillion dollar question

The US economy has suffered a sharp nosedive. Plunging exports and the biggest fall in consumer spending in 28 years has meant that the decline was much worse than analysts had expected. Kevin Connolly in the US looks at why we are now talking trillions as well as billions.

Dollars
The US economy shrank by 6.2% in the last three months of 2008

In the world of American government, the trillion is the new billion.

There was a time when only astro-physicists and accountants practising in Zimbabwe had any use for a word which - in the US at least - means a million millions.

Barack Obama is not the only extraordinary phenomenon to rise to prominence in this country in the last year or so - the trillion is right up with him. Suddenly it is popping up in newspaper headlines with extraordinary frequency, even though it is surely a number so far beyond our everyday conceptual grasp that it conveys practically nothing.

America's budget deficit for example - the amount by which what the government spends exceeds what it earns - is now $1.75tn, and its national debt - the total of those deficits accumulating from year to year - is nudging $11tn.

Incomprehensible

If it helps to view it as a figure then here is America's annual budget deficit as it stands now: $1,750,000,000,000. And the national debt: $11,000,000,000,000.

Does that help? No, I rather thought it would not.

Barack Obama answers questions from the press on 5 January
President Obama has unveiled his $3.6tn (2.5tn) budget for 2010

You get more of a feel for the scale when you consider that the digital national debt counter near Times Square in New York ran out of space when the number crossed the $10tn mark. They were only able to keep spelling out figures electronically by replacing the dollar sign at the front with an extra number.

And yet the trillion is only one of a number of startling, incomprehensible numbers to make their way into the headlines since the start of this recession.

Take Mr Obama's stimulus package for example, which ended up at $787bn (or just over three-quarters of a trillion if you prefer). You have probably heard by now the calculation that that is the equivalent of spending $1m a day every day starting from the birth of Christ and going on through the present day.

Verbal inflation

Slightly more accessibly, it is also regarded, in real terms, as one of the most expensive projects ever undertaken by the American government.

Only fighting and paying for World War II cost more. Vietnam came close but putting a man on the moon was a bargain in relative terms at about a third of the price of the stimulus programme.

It is hardly surprising that politicians and pundits on American discussion programmes often jumble up the millions, billions and trillions - we are still in the process of adjusting to a frightening order of magnitude

That is even more startling when you consider that the bailout for troubled banks (that is troubled in its modern sense of "greedy and incompetent") is only going to come in very slightly cheaper, at perhaps $750bn.

The creation of the new reserve fund to pay for health care reform in Mr Obama's first budget will cost a further $634bn.

Sale at a store in New York
The US is struggling with rising unemployment

And yet it is not very long ago that the word billion began creeping into the lexicon of everyday politics.

In the past it was mostly regarded as a loose, non-specific way of conveying a sense of scale bordering on the fantastical - as in "a billion stars in the heavens".

The speed of that verbal inflation is staggering. Most of us still use the word millionaire to describe someone of enormous wealth, but it has actually been around since the mid-19th century in its current form and once conjured an image of someone with limitless spending power.

Today it is a little less special. There are thought to be around 10 million millionaires in the world and we use the word billionaire to convey the idea of limitless plenty instead - there are only just over a thousand of them, and maybe even fewer than that after the global collapse of values of the last year or so.

But hardly have we grown used to the idea of the billionaire when the word billion, relatively speaking, has begun to lose some of its power to convey a cosmic sense of financial scale, displaced by the t-word.

It is hardly surprising that politicians and pundits on American discussion programmes often jumble up the millions, billions and trillions - we are still in the process of adjusting to a frightening order of magnitude.

Quadrillion

If you are not sure of the difference by the way, think of it like this.

A million seconds is 11 days.

Since we have only just started on the trillion scale a bit of a breathing space should now follow

A billion seconds is around 32 years.

And a trillion therefore is 32,000 years.

It seems to me this matters because the language of political arithmetic is now completely removed from the language of everyday life - and that has happened with frightening speed.

In the early years of his presidency, for example, Bill Clinton tried to get a $16.3bn stimulus package through on Capitol Hill and failed, partly perhaps because that sounded like a hell of a lot of money back then.

The American budget, and the American budget deficit have come a long way since - not in the right direction.

Still, since we have only just started on the trillion scale a bit of a breathing space should now follow. It is the quadrillion next by the way.

Now that really IS a lot of money.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 28 February, 2009 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

RELATED INTERNET LINKS
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

BBC navigation

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific