Daze of My Life: Social Insecurity

Daze of My Life
Social Insecurity
by Kenneth B. Lourie

In the same week, if I recall correctly, two incomprehensible, mathematical calculations were foisted on the American public: the amount of money the federal government projects it will need to keep the social security trust fund solvent and sustainable, and the number of dollars necessary to pay for the new Medicare-provided prescription drug benefit for seniors legislated to begin in 2006. A word I kept reading and hearing about as if it was yesterday's news instead of today's was, "trillions," and multiple trillions at that. Now let me see if I understand exactly how much one trillion is: 10 one hundred billions, right? And one billion is 10 one hundred millions, correct? And a million, which I sort of grasp, is 10 one hundred thousands (this last description I know is right). I have another question. What dollar denomination comes after a trillion? Is it a zillion, or is that my vernacular playing tricks on me? And if it is a zillion, then we're no longer discussing seven figures, are we (as in a million), or 10 figures (as in a billion), or 13 figures (as in a trillion), but rather 16 figures--in a zillion, can you imagine?
Do you know what the former New York Yankee broadcaster, Phi Rizutto might exclaim in response to that record-breaking number? "Holy Cow!" And given the astronomical figures reported in the press, that better be the same cow that jumped over the moon because he's going to need super powers, just like the computer that spread-sheets all these hopefully not, mis-calculations. Because billions come and go, trillions, too, apparently, but zillions, that's just not another number bandied about, that's another 16 numbers. Holy Cows!
Really, the price tag is almost unimaginable. Who can even pronounce a number that begins one trillion, followed by so many billions, so many millions, so many thousands, etc., and will there still be cents? Or are the cents irrelevant like the effect trillions of dollars of accumulated debt is not expected to have on the functioning of the federal government? I may be a stranger in town, and certainly one without an economics degree but, from where I sit, this truth is stranger than fiction.
I mean, who could even make up these numbers? And for those calculators who have to actually compute them, or data-entry them into a computer, how do sleep at night? (Or do they work all night when it's quiet and sleep all day when it's not?) Having the weight of the world (indirectly) or at least the weight of the present and future financial well being of approximately 300 million recipient/beneficiaries on their collective shoulders/conscience, has to be somewhat worrisome. Even one slight error, compounded and computed over millions of calculations could have a disastrous effect. Effects that might impoverish an entire generation or cause a total societal breakdown that would make the stock market crash of 1929 seem like a fender bender.
The problem is: the calculations could be right or they could be wrong. And waiting to find out doesn't seem to be a prudent course of action. And inaction seems to be imprudent. What we need is a sign, from above, or below, or even from sideways (not the movie), to give us an indication that either the path of least resistance or the path of most resistance is indeed the correct path.
If only we could see in to the future, then we could plan accordingly.
How about at least seeing into the present? That would be a start, one likely
we could finish.

Lourie is a regionally syndicated columnist who resides in Burtonsville, MD.