A million. A billion. A trillion. Once upon a time, when politicians talked about spending millions of dollars on something, peoples’ ears perked up — that was a lot of money. When the word “billion” started cropping up, it was a bit of a sticker shock, but people basically got used to it. It wasn’t their money, after all.
In recent years, we’re suddenly hearing about spending in the trillions of dollars, and though again it’s a sort of sticker shock to hear this word bandied about, many politicians are hoping that, as with “billions”, we’ll simply adjust and not get too upset. It’s just numbers, right?
All of this has been helped along by a little-known fact: the human brain is simply not capable of envisioning the meaning of numbers beyond a certain level. Try this experiment: Think about ten people. They don’t have to be real people; just imagine you’re standing in a field, and there are ten people standing in front of you. See their faces in your mind. Okay, now make it a hundred people. We’re getting a pretty good crowd here, but it’s a large field. You can probably, if you think about it, come up with a hundred actual people that you know personally.
Now make it a thousand. What just happened? Most likely, the image in your mind suddenly turned into a rather faceless mass of people. I’m guessing you’re no longer seeing faces really. You’re figuring out the size of the overall crowd, but you’ve stopped seeing individuals. It’s just a crowd. We’re only at a thousand, and already you’re reaching (or have passed) your mind’s ability to truly hold on to the concept of that many… somethings. Now make it a million. You probably just lost track of how big the crowd even is. I know I did. “Million” isn’t a solid concept — it’s just a word meaning “a lot”. Billion? That’s “a lot” too. “Trillion”? Sure sounds big, but again your brain is basically hearing “a lot” and stopping there. We grasp the concept that a trillion is bigger than a million — a lot bigger even — but it’s hard to grasp just how much bigger.
So, I’d like to try framing it a bit differently. Perhaps we can see it better if we relate it to time. People are pretty good at grasping time.
Think about what happened ten seconds ago. Probably you were sitting right where you are now, reading a paragraph or two above this one. Easy. A thousand seconds ago? That’s about seventeen minutes. Again, well within the range of memory. A million seconds ago? Sounds like a lot! It’s a lot to count, but really, one million seconds ago was only about twelve days ago.
Okay. Let’s pause for just a moment and fix that idea in our minds. One million seconds ago is still pretty much within ready memory. Twelve days. Not quite two weeks. Specifically, one million seconds ago is eleven days, thirteen hours, forty-six minutes, and forty seconds in the past.
Now. One trillion seconds? One trillion seconds ago was before you were born. It was before your grandparents were born. It was before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Before Columbus first set foot in the New World. Before the printing press was invented. Before the Jews fled Egypt with Moses into the desert. Before the rise of the first emperor of Japan.
One trillion seconds ago was thirty-one thousand six hundred eighty-nine1 years ago. Before mankind invented the wheel.
The entire known history of mankind is within the last one trillion seconds. That’s a lot more than merely “a lot”. Now stop a moment and consider, again, that the federal government is spending trillions (plural!) of dollars per year more than it takes in. It’s not merely a trick of accounting, and it is not merely a large number. It is insanity. It is unsustainable. It must stop. And make no mistake — this debt was not caused by tax cuts. It was not caused by fighting a war. It was caused by close to a century of ever increasing “rights” in the form of monetary entitlements, corporate and individual welfare, and just plain corruption. It was caused by the simple fact that power corrupts, and a powerful government will grow as much as it is allowed to. After a century of runaway expansion, it is time for the people of this country to seize the reins and pull hard.
As I write this, it’s 62 days (that’s 5,356,800 seconds for those keeping score) until the November 2 elections. Where will you be?