Too many zeroes to count

Posted: Thursday, June 04, 2009

The national debt is now the highest in history, $11 trillion. Because I don't know how much a trillion dollars is, I went to my dictionary. "Trillion," it says, is "The cardinal number equal to 10 to the 12th power." That definition does not help me understand how much a trillion dollars is.

How many Rolls Royces could I buy with a trillion dollars? How many cheeseburgers would I get? That's the sort of thing I'd have to know to understand how much it is; you know, give me something specific.

It would help a little if the dictionary definition let us know what a "cardinal number" is. Is a "cardinal number" more or less than just a plain old number? I must have missed the day my teacher taught us about "cardinal numbers". We were taught just numbers. I don't think even my teacher, Miss Shute, who knew almost everything, knew what a "cardinal number" was. If she did, I don't recall her saying so.

We all know that a billion is a thousand million, and a trillion is a million million. I looked it up, and the next number after a trillion is a quadrillion -- whatever a quadrillion is. I know I don't have that much in the bank. After quadrillion, numbers get very fuzzy. The big numbers are a quintillion, a sextillion, a septillion, an octillion, a nonillion, decillion and so on.

Not many of us have any occasion to think about numbers higher than a million. Whatever the national debt is, it's beyond our comprehension. We just pay what the government asks for, which is our taxes. The debt numbers are so high they're meaningless.

I'm inclined to like little numbers. I usually know how much money I have in my pocket -- or close, anyway -- and I remember what I have in the bank. However, when anyone talks about the national debt, I'm lost and I'm not interested, either. It's the government's problem and I don't want to hear about it. Maybe this sounds irresponsible but I don't know what I can do about it.

I remember when I first got interested in money. I had a paper route and collected the money for the 27 papers I delivered. I had to turn in what I collected, and even if some of the people weren't home or didn't have the money when I arrived, I still had to hand over the money for all the papers delivered. It was a fast way to learn about money that I've never forgotten. I think it made me inclined to pay on time.

For more than 30 years now, I've made more money than I need to pay my bills, and I never get used to liking it because I remember so well when I didn't have enough. It seems like a terrible thing to say, but not having enough money for some of my life was probably good for me. I really don't know whether being broke sometime in your life is good for you or not. I know I hate banks. I keep most of my money in the bank because it makes sense and it's safer but I don't like it. I wish we could all keep our money in a drawer in the hall and take what we need when we go out. I like the feeling of cash in my pocket.

Unfortunately, credit cards have cut down drastically on the amount of money people keep in their pockets. I know I've cut down on the cash I carry. Cash is getting to be unnecessary.



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