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Blackwing Offline
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America's trillion dollar question. - February 28th 2009, 08:24 PM


The US economy has suffered a sharp nosedive. Plunging exports and the biggest fall in consumer spending in 28 years has meant that the decline was much worse than analysts had expected. Kevin Connolly in the US looks at why we are now talking trillions as well as billions.

In the world of American government, the trillion is the new billion.

There was a time when only astro-physicists and accountants practising in Zimbabwe had any use for a word which means a million millions.

Barack Obama is not the only extraordinary phenomenon to rise to prominence in this country in the last year or so - the trillion is right up with him. Suddenly it is popping up in newspaper headlines with extraordinary frequency, even though it is surely a number so far beyond our everyday conceptual grasp that it conveys practically nothing.

America's budget deficit for example - the amount by which what the government spends exceeds what it earns - is now $1.75tn, and its national debt - the total of those deficits accumulating from year to year - is nudging $11tn.

You get more of a feel for the scale when you consider that the digital national debt counter near Times Square in New York ran out of space when the number crossed the $10tn mark. They were only able to keep spelling out figures electronically by replacing the dollar sign at the front with an extra number.

And yet the trillion is only one of a number of startling, incomprehensible numbers to make their way into the headlines since the start of this recession.

Take Mr Obama's stimulus package for example, which ended up at $787bn (or just over three-quarters of a trillion if you prefer). You have probably heard by now the calculation that that is the equivalent of spending $1m a day every day starting from the birth of Christ and going on through the present day.

Verbal inflation

Slightly more accessibly, it is also regarded, in real terms, as one of the most expensive projects ever undertaken by the American government.

Only fighting and paying for World War II cost more. Vietnam came close but putting a man on the moon was a bargain in relative terms at about a third of the price of the stimulus programme.

That is even more startling when you consider that the bailout for troubled banks (that is troubled in its modern sense of "greedy and incompetent") is only going to come in very slightly cheaper, at perhaps $750bn.

The creation of the new reserve fund to pay for health care reform in Mr Obama's first budget will cost a further $634bn.

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