"Billions" This, "Billions" That 

Whatever happened to "millions" as a big-time unit of measure?

Millions or billions? Which of these seems to have disappeared from our lexicon in the last few months as a way of quantifying a humongous amount of money, and which one has replaced it as part of the lingua franca of our new economic reality? Have you been paying attention?

Billions to bail out the banks; billions to "rescue" the economy; billions in lost market capitalization; billions in bonuses to Wall Street bigwigs; even billions in the apparently biggest Ponzi scheme of all time. No one talks about millions anymore. It makes me almost nostalgic on the rare occasion when I hear the word. Everything, it seems, comes in quantities of billions. Who wants to be a millionaire anymore? That's so 20th century. Let's talk about billionaires. They're so much sexier (even if the two most prominent ones are the geeky Bill Gates and his even geekier pal, Warren Buffett).

It used to be that a billion was a big number, even a spectacularly big number. Webster's Dictionary defines billion as a "very large number." Million? Not so much. Billion is so big, in fact, that I can remember a time when folks took the trouble to distinguish it by audibly accenting the "b" when pronouncing the word or by saying "billion, with a 'b'" to avoid confusion. Now, even newscasters toss off the "b" word in a way that makes it indistinguishable from its poorer brother. Billion? Ho hum.

Remember when the word "billion" used to apply mostly to science (e.g., billions of microorganisms) or to outer space (e.g., billions of stars). Now, it even applies to world populations, as China and India both exceed the mark. It would be easy to write this off as just another sacrifice to inflation, except for the fact that inflation, even at its worst, is usually expressed in much smaller, incremental factors. A billion, though, is a thousand million. Even at its very worst, inflation has never been a thousand percent (unless, of course, you live in Zimbabwe — billion-dollar Starbucks latte, anyone?).

The revival of "billion" in our daily vernacular may mean that the words we made up as children to impress our friends, like zillions or jillions, may be due for a comeback. We didn't know then how much those fanciful terms represented, any more than we now have a real-world sense of how much a billion is. All we knew was that they sounded like a whole lot, and when we used them to one-up our friends, all we cared about was that they sounded unimaginably large. Which encapsulates the problem: Billion no longer eludes our imaginations, even as it continues to elude our comprehension.

The worst thing about this number creep is that we've become acclimated, even inured, to it. The word "billion" doesn't even shock us anymore. Why should it when politicians and economists like to throw in the real shocker, "trillion," every once in a while (i.e., the national debt/deficit). The result? We accept the inevitability of what used to be an unimaginable number as part of our daily idiom.

Remember when the folks who used the "b" word used to have to resort to visual images to get us to wrap our minds around it? A billion was a stack of one-dollar bills that would extend 63 miles into space. Or, better yet, it would take you 30 years to count to a billion but only 11 days to count to a million. Now a billion is measured by how fast a banker can make that many dollars disappear (without anything close to that number of excuses or explanations for where it went).

All of which is to say that the bad economic news of the past few months has made us, strangely enough, insensate to, even blasé about just how bad that news is. Oh sure, people are losing jobs left and right, the stock market has lost 50 percent of its value, and the Campbell company is beefing up production so it can be ready for the coming boom in public soup kitchens, but all of this can be dealt with by just throwing billions of dollars at it. After all, a billion is so 21st century. Marty Aussenberg writes the "Gadfly" column for memphisflyer.com.


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