700,000,000,000 Is a Very Big Number

I’ve no desire to get into the consequences/benefits of the recent financial industry bailout/rescue on this blog. Yes, I have opinions about it, but the opinions of a librarian and web developer with formal training in neither economics nor politics matter little in this discussion.

What I do have to say, though, is that $700,000,000,000 is a lot of money. So much so that I don’t know how much money it is. I think of money in terms of things/services I can exchange it for, as it really has no other use (unless you burn it to heat your home). I know what $1 will get me: a few bananas, or perhaps a used book. With $100, I could buy a couple of weeks of groceries or pay for a visit to the doctor.

Beyond that, money starts getting a little more abstract. I don’t need 4 years worth of groceries at once, so I can’t imagine spending $10,000 to buy those groceries. At that level, I can’t think of money in terms of groceries any more; I have to move on to larger, more expensive items, like a car, or a marimba, or a house.

And that’s where my concept of money starts to break down. A million dollars is about the most that I can conceive of; anything more than that is too abstract. The sun is 93,000,000 miles away. How many times will I have to drive to work before I drive 93,000,000 miles? It will take me about 25,000 years, it looks like. A billion is a meainingless an unfathomable number; you might as well say “a lot”. 700 billion is just “a lot more”. What’s the difference?

I certainly don’t know, and I doubt anyone dealing with our economic woes does, either. We’re just throwing big numbers around hoping that they’re big enough that people say, “Oh, that’s a really big number! It must be important!” If everyone believes the number is big enough, faith in the credit markets will be restored, and home prices will increase 40% a year forevermore.