Under the thumb of big numbers

See if this number means anything: $42 trillion, increasing by thousands per second.

See if this number means anything: $42 trillion, increasing by thousands per second.

That’s the debt owed by the world’s governments. The Economist magazine tracks its rise online with a global debt clock.

We are supposed to be scared by that long snake of digits, but it causes most people to yawn, or scratch their heads and turn to hockey or YouTube.

You couldn’t say the numbers boggle the mind. They don’t enter the mind. Even one trillion is an empty idea — the unit followed by 12 zeroes. The distance to the nearest galaxy would be more exciting, if I could remember it.

My late wife Peggy, who worked for a while as a secretary for the Canadian Law Commission, a think tank killed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, once carried a visiting baby around the commission’s library, telling the baby in a soothing tone about the commission’s work and the contents of the books.

The global public debt means as much to the average person as the Law Commission’s work meant to the baby. Less, probably.

Peggy’s account did have the effect of a lullaby, assuring the baby that everything was okay, or soon would be after some changes in policy and jurisprudence.

On the other hand, the Economist’s online debt clock is a faint, theoretical wake-up call — a call that most people ignore. They sleep through the signal, and continue their personal dreams or nightmares.

“Ah, but you should awaken to the danger of the debt, if you know what’s good for you,” the money-pundits say.

Should we? Fully alert people may see a financial landscape that is much different to the one the conservative or neo-liberal dollar-gurus want us to see.

What is this money that we owe collectively? Money used to be coins minted from copper, silver and gold, plus the bits of printed paper that certified the existence of specific quantities of treasure held in vaults.

Not any more. Coins are small change. Serious money is just a mass of paper and electronics that the government and commercial banks and business corporations conjure up together.

They order us to accept whatever tiny or bloated share of that alleged money we can squeeze out, and exchange the computer symbols for groceries and other stuff, and trade some of it for human and environmental services and infrastructure — big subsidies to automobile roads, sketchy aid to buses and railways.

According to the official word from Ottawa, the flow of the “free market” has swept us into economic trouble, but helpful restraint by a government in Canada has saved this country from the worst of it. The implication is that Canadians will prosper as long as we slash social and environmental programs.

The “free market” is portrayed as a relentless force of nature resembling Egypt’s Nile river, where smart observers of the river and their descendants, by relative accuracy in estimating this year’s deposit of river mud and the abundance of grain, were able to transform themselves into priest-kings and living gods.

Unlike the Nile, however, the “market” turns out to be a system partly handmade and controlled by money twisters and politicians.

Social policy scholar Chuck Collins recently pointed out that 25 of the U.S.A.’s largest corporations paid more to their CEOs and more to lobbyists than they paid in taxes. They dodged taxes on much of their profit by hiding it in tax havens, from Bermuda to the Cayman Islands.

Environmental thinker Guy Dauncey in Econews urges closing of tax havens and adding a tax on junk food, to increase annual world revenues by up to $1.4 trillion. Great idea.

gemort@pacificcoast.net

—G.E. Mortimore is a Langford-based writer. Think About It runs every second week in the Gazette.

 

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