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It’s beginning to look like trillions are the new billions.

You know, as when fashionistas say, “black is the new white.” Or, “pink is the new black.” Or, as the Times led with a story this morning, “The bag is the new hat.”

Somewhere along the road to Oz, a billion dollars lost the allure that it once had (not that I would sneeze at it!), and lost the sheen that it conferred on someone who managed to be worth a billion. With a mere billion you might not even be able to make the Forbes annual list of the world’s wealthiest people any more. Let’s have some empathy here, folks.

It doesn’t take much to get to a trillion nowadays. The Bush administration’s final budget, for instance, came in at over $3 trillion, the first time that line’s been crossed. It’s as if every time our government sneezes (so to speak) billions of dollars are merely like the germs that are dispersed.

And take those Bush tax cuts. We’re talking about revenue to the tune of a trillion dollars or more. And that’s just what’s been foregone since the cuts were implemented. Should they be extended, as the presumptive GOP presidential nominee now desires, we’re talking multi-trillions of dollars of revenue.

Then there’s the nation’s ever mounting health care tab, now coming in around $2 trillion per annum. But as if affirming that ‘ever upward’ is the mantra of the health care industry, a recent report by the Office of the Actuary at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services predicts that the cost of health care in this country will about double by the year 2017 to some $4.3 trillion.

Here in our own backyard, four companies had over $1 trillion of total life insurance in-force at the end of 2006. And of these, Metropolitan Life is quickly closing in on $3 trillion of total in-force coverage. Prudential at year-end 2006 had just crossed the $2 trillion mark. There’s a huge amount of trust tied up in those obligations.

Also, at least a few banks have assets of over a trillion dollars, with Citibank and Bank of America among them.

What really got me to thinking about the trillion factor, however, was a column in last week’s Times by Bob Herbert that has haunted me since. Herbert is not ordinarily one of my favorite columnists, but sometimes he does hit the mark.

What he wrote about was a hearing held at the end of February by the Joint Economic Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. The hearing–on the subject of the cost of the war in Iraq–heard from speakers such as Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, and Robert Hormats, who is vice chairman of Goldman Sachs International.

I’d like to quote a paragraph or so from Herbert’s piece: “For a fraction of the cost of this war,” said Mr. Stiglitz, “we could have put Social Security on a sound footing for the next half-century or more.”

Herbert continued: “Mr. Hormats mentioned Social Security and Medicare, saying that both could have been put ‘on a more sustainable basis.’ And he cited the committee’s own calculations from last fall that showed that the money spent on the war each day is enough to enroll an additional 58,000 children in Head Start for a year, or make a year of college affordable for 160,000 low-income students through Pell Grants, or pay the annual salaries of nearly 11,000 additional border patrol agents or 14,000 more police officers.”

Herbert’s point was that this hearing hardly caused a blip on the media’s radar screen. Our attention, he wrote, was focused on “Saturday Night Live.”

While it’s true that it’s only money and that there are things in life that are much more important, it is simply not prudent–or sustainable–to get to the point where, as a country, our going through a trillion dollars won’t even cause a Mr. Spock-like raising of an eyebrow.


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