Twelve Zeros

Craig Douglass On Consumers

Twelve Zeros

John Beresford Tipton. Remember him? Many baby boomers will, or perhaps folks who are familiar with shows during the so-called 1950s golden age of television.

Tipton was the never-seen benefactor on the TV show “The Millionaire.” The show ran on CBS from 1955-60. It was a hit. Tipton’s fictional executive secretary, Michael Anthony, would give away a million dollars every week to unsuspecting individuals and watch what they would do with it. A million dollars! Not what it used to be.

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So, who wants to be a millionaire when there are billionaires? There are, according to Forbes magazine’s 2020 list, 2,755 billionaires on the planet, with the wealthiest, at last count, worth $185 billion.

Billion, shmillion: A billion is a 1 followed by nine zeros. A billionaire? Piker! How ordinaire. Now, there are not yet any trillionaires on the planet — that’s a thousand times 1 billion, or a 1 followed by 12 zeros. Twelve zeros — now that’s something we can sink our teeth into. Or can we?

A trillion has been at the center of deficit, debt and stimulus pontificating and policy for some time now, most recently in an April 11 New York Times column in which our own Arkansas Democrat-Gazette was cited. When the Times columnist stated that some economists believed a trillion was not enough to provide real relief to a pandemicized society and economy, it was followed by, “Not the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette editorial desk, which recently characterized the move as that of a ‘spendthrift nation, a trillion here, a trillion there.’”

We’re not really sure how to capture the meaning of a trillion dollars (much less $1.9 trillion to be spent by the American Rescue Plan Act, which passed Congress in March). Here is some help from Jerry Pacheco, a columnist for the Albuquerque Journal, putting the figure in context in the same Times column.

“If you spend $40 per second, around the clock, it would take you 289 days to exhaust a billion dollars,” Pacheco wrote. (That’s $40 per second around the clock or 1,440 seconds per 24 hours.) “If you did the same thing with a trillion dollars, it would take you 792.5 years to go broke.”

While many on one side of the political aisle decry the trillions being passed and proposed — the latest is a $2.2 trillion American Jobs Plan for infrastructure and a $1.8 trillion American Families Plan — the fact remains that unemployment is at 6%, still above the 4.5% rate in March 2020. In human terms, the number of unemployed persons is still millions higher than in February 2020. So, is a trillion here and a trillion there too much, not enough? How do we really know?

Could we ever get out of debt? The country, that is. Well, the national debt is one thing; the annual budget deficit is quite another. Both are concerning, just as inflation is concerning as a sneaky and slow-boiling confiscator of individual and family means.

I was reminded recently that the economy, with a little help from congressional fiscal policy and concurrent Federal Reserve monetary policy, can once again experience a historical resiliency.

It wasn’t that terribly long ago when then-President Bill Clinton’s administration presented four consecutive balanced budgets, yielding a budget surplus beginning in 1997. And the national debt as a percentage of GDP was reduced from nearly 50% to a little over one-third. The situation in 2021 is quite different from 1997, of course.

Today the national debt hovers at $28 trillion (over 100% of GDP) and this year’s budget deficit is over $3 trillion. But the cost in human lives and livelihoods, whether small businesses survive or fail, and the ups and downs of consumer participation in the economy, which accounts for 70% of the tide that floats all boats, continue to perpetuate a sense of unease. And unknowing.

We have experienced for more than a year now a worldwide crisis that has changed our relationship to business, education, health care, leisure, employment, entertainment and to one another.

Is there a new pandemic paradigm? That’s the trillion-dollar question.

Craig Douglass is executive secretary of the Regional Recycling District in Pulaski County.