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Twelve zeroes

US bailout’s size beggars our imaginations. So why’re we expected to use them?

Written by The Indian Express | Published: February 12, 2009 12:42 am

When is $70 billion small change,something difficult to track? When the health of the US economy is being discussed,apparently. When one is faced with sums as vast as those the Obama administration is preparing to throw at a domestic economy in which people aren’t spending up to their previously set high standards,$70 billion — one estimate of the difference between the drafts of the stimulus package being passed by the upper and lower houses of the US Congress — is downright negligible. When $2 trillion — or perhaps two and a half? — is being discussed as the bare minimum necessary,all previous sums of money in the public sphere,of any numbers in the public sphere,pale into insignificance.

In the ‘Austin Powers’ movies,much humour was sourced from the cryogenically frozen villain’s inability to figure out whether a million dollars was still a large sum of money in 2000. (In one sequence,he asks: “Why make trillions when we can make… billions?”) When Ronald Reagan was worried about the US national debt in 1981,he suggested that we think of it as

a “stack of thousand-dollar bills 67 miles high.” The Obama administration plans to more than double that height,using government-sanctioned spending,tax cuts,and through mobilising private sector saving.

When faced with enormous sums of this sort,sums that the American public will still be thinking about decades from now,it is sort of necessary to be as certain as possible about the structure of the spending. That isn’t anywhere near being the case right now; not only do the different drafts of the legislature’s stimulus confuse matters,but the additional measures announced by the Federal Reserve and by Obama’s treasury secretary,Timothy Geithner,leave out crucial details. How can the federal government stem the tide of homes being foreclosed upon,for example,a tide that continues to wash away at the creditworthiness of terrified American banks? That remains to be seen. One thing is certain,though: when the Obama people say they’re going to flood the economy with money,they mean it.

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