The Wall Street Journal's Trillion-Dollar Error

In this age of big recession and big stimulus, what’s a few more zeros?

There was a delicious (I’m attempting irony here) Correction & Amplification in The Wall Street Journal today:

The U.S. budget deficit is projected to total $1.2 trillion this year. A page-one World-Wide news summary in some editions Jan. 8 incorrectly put the figure at $1.2 billion.

Though they ought to be fluent with numbers containing oodles (technical term) of zeros, the editors of The Journal can be forgiven for the error, for we are boldly going where no exchequer has gone before. As the late Carl Sagan might have said, Trillions upon trillions….

Welcome to the twenty-teens, or whatever we are going to call this brave new decade, which begins not on January 1, 2011, but next Tuesday, around noon. To prepare ourselves for the big event, let’s get out our pencils and let’s do a little ‘rithmatic.

The prefix for trillion, as we know from super-computer lingo, is “tera.” I propose a neologism for our times: terafy.

I’m ill-equipped for the task, having had room-temperature math SAT scores. But why should that disqualify me? If we learned anything during the Crash of ’08, it’s surely that no one knows anything. All those years we thought Alan Greenspan was the smartest man in the room, and what did he know? “The fundamentals are sound.” Thanks, Alan. How much are you getting for a speech these days?

First, let’s genuflect at the statue of good old Sen. Everett Dirksen, who in the 1960s’ so memorably quipped, apropos governmental-budgeting process, “A million here, a million there, pretty soon you’re talking about real money.” Senator, thou shoulds’t be living at this hour….

How much is a trillion dollars, anyway? Alan, would you like to explain to the class?

Well, in the most basic terms, it’s a 1 followed by 12 zeros. Or as Austin Powers might say: one million million. Let’s see … if one million contestants on Who Wants to be a Millionaire won the big prize … well, the producers would probably be sacked.

The prefix for trillion, as we know from super-computer lingo, is “tera.” I propose a neologism for our times: terafy. (V. tr.: To instill fear by mentioning the US deficit.)

Being innumerate, I need equivalencies to help my poor mind wrap around Grendel-size mathematical concepts.

Last Saturday, I attended the (splendid and moving) commissioning ceremony of our newest nuclear aircraft carrier, CVN77 George H.W. Bush. These 95,000 tons of “force projection,” as the Defense Department puts it, cost $6.2 billion. Dividing $1.2 trillion by $6.2 billion…161 aircraft carriers. Before you wail, Why do we need another aircraft carrier?, let me say, I don’t know, but if it makes you feel better, it’s the last of the Nimitz-class carriers. The next class of carriers are each the size of Rhode Island, so this one will probably look like a bargain.

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Another way of looking at it: How many Bernard Madoffs would it take to swindle the US taxpayer out of $1.2 trillion? Let’s see… $1.2 tril divided by $50 billion is: 24 Bernard Madoffs. That’s a lot of Madoffs. The New York paparazzi would be hard-pressed to man that many stakeouts outside that 200 Upper East Side coops.

In stock-market terms? Well, last September 29, the stock market did a historic three-and-half-gainer-swan-dive of 777 points, for a loss of $1.2 trillion. (Total loss in 2008 was $6.9 trillion.) Do you remember September 29? Sure you do. Remember calling your broker and hearing how much you’d lost? That’s what $1.2 trillion feels like, physically. (Galvanic skin response + shallow respiration divided by the square root of the number of hot flashes.)

Another metric (how Alan Greenspan likes to put it) is as a percentage of GDP, or gross domestic product (the value of all goods and services that we produce in a year, not counting the illegal nanny and gardener). $1.2 trillion is about 8 percent of GDP—hmm, nearly 10 percent of the entire US economy. I’m not Paul Krugman, but that can’t be good.

You say you don’t want to hear any more? I’m a Deficit-Debbie Downer? I don’t blame you. I’ve been heavily sedated myself since October 9. That was the day the National Deficit Clock ran out of digits. Don’t worry—two more are being added! They’ll help the new clock keep up as we add $5.7 million to the national debt every minute of every day.

Mr. Obama—peace and blessings be upon his name—wants a “stimulus package” (trans: "spending bill”) of $800 billion. Well, heck, what’s a few more zeros? And if that doesn’t work, and the Chinese decide they don’t want to go on financing the national credit card anymore, we’ll just, I dunno, print some more money.

But not to fear. Our new president is bringing in some extremely smart people to deal with all this, like our new Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner. How weird is it that on the same day The Wall Street Journal corrected its little error, we learned that Mr. Geithner owed $34,000 in back federal taxes. But it’s not such a lot of money, really. You might even call it chump change we can believe in.

Christopher Buckley’s books include Supreme Courtship, The White House Mess, Thank You for Smoking, Little Green Men, and Florence of Arabia. His journalism, satire, and criticism has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, Vogue, and Esquire. He was chief speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush, and the founder and editor-in-chief of Forbes FYI.

Correction: This article originally stated $1.2 trillion equals 200 Bernie Madoffs. It has since been updated to 24.