Number Theories

One of the things that most vividly distinguishes this economic crisis from its predecessors is the kinds of numbers involved in talking about it. For the first time ever, “trillion” is being thrown around a lot. And “billion” is so casually used as to be almost invisible. Never mind the immortal words of Everett Dirksen (the late Illinois Senator), “a million here, a million there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.” These days, “real money” doesn’t happen till the trillions.

The lack of “realness” of lesser sums cuts two ways. On one hand, if mere billions don’t really count, then spending them doesn’t either.

On the other hand, the really small sums (like the average payment for SSI, which is $674 a month for an eligible individual) are so negligible that not spending them doesn’t count. Thus, General Assistance in Illinois ranges from $182 to $223 per month for an eligible individual. For the last twenty years, it has not increased. Initially, it was considered aid for “very poor people.” Now, as a practical matter, it is considered to be a program for “the homeless.” Nothing has changed in the meantime except, of course, the cost of housing. But the state is now under constant pressure to eliminate the program entirely, on the logic that:

  1. Nobody can possibly obtain housing with this level of income;
  2. Therefore this is a program for the homeless;
  3. All homeless people are addicted to alcohol or drugs
  4. Addicts should not be given cash benefits, since they will only use them to buy their drug of choice.

Similarly, private sector activities used by homeless people to obtain small amounts of cash, ranging from busking, begging, collecting recyclables, collecting discarded valuables, selling blood or plasma, or taking part in medical research, are frowned on by the more “respectable” advocates for the homeless, out of concern for the way these funds will be used. Many such advocates view anyone who facilitates these enterprises as “exploiting” the homeless and the very poor. Their logic is as follows:

  1. Nobody except very poor people would take part in these activities for the compensation available;
  2. All very poor people got that way by being addicted to alcohol or drugs;
  3. Addicts should not be given cash of any sort, even as payment for lawful employment, since they will only use it to buy their drug of choice.

The flaw in these arguments, of course, is that General Assistance, or selling blood or plasma, etc., don’t have to pay such minuscule amounts that only poor people would consider them. If they paid more, then the middle class could be “exploited” too. Of course, if they paid more, the middle class who received that compensation would probably not consider itself exploited.

But this kind of argument applies to people other than the very poor and the homeless. The conventional wisdom, for instance, is that Social Security Retirement benefits were never intended to be the sole means of support for elderly people. Once that argument has been made acceptable, reducing those benefits becomes okay, since of course the recipients must have some other means of support. In the meantime, the other two legs of the “3-legged stool” of retirement income so beloved of financial planners have been sawed away (private pensions and savings, both of which have been wiped out by the current economic mess.)

In short, the way to get rid of any benefit you really don’t want to pay is to reduce it, perhaps on the grounds of economic necessity, perhaps on the grounds of the unworthiness of the recipients, until it becomes so small that “nobody can possibly expect to live on it,” at which point you can eliminate it entirely, without ever bothering to investigate the other sources of income available to its recipients.

So much for the small end of the scale. In the meantime, we are not only talking about trillions of dollars, but about bytes (fragments of digital information) in the umptillions. Strictly speaking, the terminology is kilo- (1000), mega- (10002 ), giga- (10003 ), tera- (10004 ), peta- (10005 ), exa- (10006 ), zetta- (10007 ), and yotta- (10008 ), in case you were wondering. (Thanks, Wikipedia.) So far, we are not actually making gadgets with more than terabyte capacity, but we see no reason to limit our aspirations.

BTW, the highest numerical value banknote ever printed was a note for 1 sextillion pengő (1021 or 1 milliard bilpengő as printed) printed in Hungary in 1946. In 2009, Zimbabwe printed a 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollar note, which at the time of printing was only worth about 30 US dollars. (Thanks again, Wikipedia.) On the other hand, here in the US, the Mint is seriously considering eliminating the hundred-dollar bill (the largest one it currently prints) on the grounds that it gets used mostly in illegal transactions. At the same time, the Mint has been debating for several decades whether to eliminate the one-cent coin, which currently contains somewhat more than one cent worth of copper and is therefore a loss leader for the Mint. A counter-proposal is also circulating to re-monetize the coinage by making the penny worth 5 cents, the nickel worth ten cents, the dime worth twenty-five cents, and the quarter worth one dollar. So far that hasn’t caught on. The other Great Debate is about dollar coins and dollar bills. Now that most vending machines purport to take dollar bills, and in fact will accept only the newest and crispest of them, sooner or later public ire will create a galloping demand for dollar coins, but it hasn’t happened yet. Maybe kicking the machines is more fun than solving the problem.

Jane Grey

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