One Quadrillion Dollars (in Debt)

Let’s reflect on this for a moment, because it’s inevitable that we as a nation (U.S.) are moving toward having this figure in our vocabulary soon enough. If it’s not measuring production, it’ll be measuring debt, but either way, we might as well be prepared. One quadrillion looks like this 1,000,000,000,000,000 (15 zeroes).

Is there a quadrillion of anything out there? On the molecular and cellular levels, sure. I had a professor once who told me that the human body is made up of ” a billion billion cells, which is actually a quintillion, or a thousand quadrillion (18 zeroes).

But what about things of human creation? The wealthiest people in the world claim a worth in the tens of billions (only 10 zeroes there). At last night’s presidential debate, Barack Obama said the national debt has doubled from 5 to 10 trillion in the last 7 years. Pretty impressive, but you’d need the debt of 100 United States of Americas to equal a quadrillion dollars. Is there even that much money out there?

I’ve always wondered if there’s a set amount of money out there in the world, but I don’t think there is. Money seems to be the result of human ingenuity. The 50 or so billion dollars that Bill Gates has, where would that be if he or Microsoft had never been born? I think he made some of that money. It just wouldn’t have existed until the masses saw something they wanted to spend it on. Incredibly, no one who spent $1000 or $2000 on a computer is starving as a result of the expenditure.

This is largely due to the phenomenon of credit. Between student loans, credit cards, mortgages, car loans, and other lines of credit, there’s way more cash floating around than could possibly exist at present. Most of us are on track to pay all that back over time, but we’re also on track to do some more borrowing, too. Health care professional in hospitals are getting their salaries even though people aren’t paying their medical bills. Social security is getting sucked dry, more companies are relying on loans to meet payroll. Even if there was a quadrillion dollars out there, chances are, we’ve already spent it.

For years, people have been resigned to the fact that society now runs largely on credit and debt. I play the game, too, but it just doesn’t sit right with me somehow. Go to Brazil, Haiti, or even Puerto Rico, and you will notice a large number of partially constructed houses. Some of them are being built so slow, they have weeds growing out of the foundation. It only takes a few months to build a house in the states, but several years in some of these developing nations. They can’t get mortgages, so they have to save money and build as they go. Literally, they say, “OK, we have enough saved for 7 bags of cement, 200 bricks, and we can pay the construction crew for about a week of work, if we help them build.” I hope I don’t have to do that, but there is a certain discipline there that Joe Six Pack is sorely lacking. We’ll always have creative accountants and people willing to lend money, but at some point, those who will succeed have no choice but to go back to what Ben Franklin called The Philosopher’s Stone: “Spend less than you have.”

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