$700 billion equals what?

Thursday, September 25, 2008 | 4:24 p.m. CDT; updated 10:38 a.m. CST, Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Five.  5.  V.  One, two, three, four, FIVE.  

Many years ago, a psychology professor mentioned to me that five is the largest number we, humans, can perceive.  We do not have to count five objects when we see them in a cluster; we know it is five.  Five dots on a die, five hearts on a playing card, five horses in a field.  Her theory had something to do with five fingers and five toes.  

When we are presented with six or more, we count or break the group into smaller clusters - Three and three; four and two; five and one.  So when we hear that the United States government set the new national limit of debt to the tune of $11.3 trillion, we, humans, have absolutely no concept of what that is.  

Even the few who work with these numbers daily, like astrophysicist and director of New York's Hayden Planetarium Neil deGrasse Tyson, would scratch their heads in wonderment of this much money.  For the average citizen, 11.3 has little meaning, so reflecting on 11.3 trillion is near impossible, so let me write it out.

$11,300,000,000,000 in national debt.

$700,000,000,000 in bailout for the financial institutions.

12 banks that have been taken over by the government because of financial failure in 2008.

It does not help, does it?

Even the comparisons of dollars to time or distance has little meaning.  How many years making $1.00 a second will it take to equal $11.3 trillion.  Lining up bills end to end, how many round trips between New York and Los Angeles; how many round trips between Earth and the moon?

All the populace knows is that somewhere there is $700 billion that will be used to fix another fine financial mess we have gotten ourselves in.  Here is how it should work, and I use "should" asking for a lot of leeway here.

The federal government, by creating a new institution and using our hard-earned tax dollars, will purchase the bad debts from all of the financial institutions, large and small, at pennies on the dollar.  Exactly what this new organization intends to do with this bad debt has not yet been determined.  Even the resolution proposed by the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve is not exactly clear on this point.  The proposal is only three pages long.  We can understand three pages.  Not much can be said in three pages of political gobbledygook.

According to Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., on CBS' "Early Show," there is no apparent proposed oversight of the Treasury Department's new department by Congress.  There appears to be no protection for the tax payers — you know, the "we the people" who are footing the $700 billion in debt relief.  Will we get our money back?

Now to the meat of the problem: How will the bailout relate directly to students searching for affordable student loans; those searching for affordable loans to attain the American dream of home ownership; for family farmers who need affordable loans in the beginning of the growing season to finance equipment, seed and fertilizer?  Can someone please answer these questions?  I certainly cannot.

Even our presidential candidates have been sidelined by the enormity of the problem.  On September 21, both candidates appeared on CBS' "60 Minutes" and neither could not quite put his finger on the problem or detail a proposed solution.  Only Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, the authors of the bailout, know what will happen.  I certainly hope they do for our sake.  After all, they will be managing this "loan" financed by our tax dollars.

Meanwhile, the current bailout number, as of Sept. 22, is $700 billion, up from $82 billion a week ago.  We have become numb to the numbers.  We need someone to explain this to us in terms we understand and to which we can relate.  The numbers have just gotten too big to count on our hands and feet — 5.

David Rosman is a business and political communications consultant, professional speaker and instructor at Columbia College. He welcomes your comments at


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