Old Well: UNC Chapel Hill Campus

Friday, December 9, 2011

On the dividends of a late read

I read a lot, eagerly, omnivorously, and in doing so sometimes overreach, ordering books I can't possibly get to in the short term; hence they accumulate in heaps on my office floor, as my shelves are already squeezed. I confess my gluttony, yet without repentance. Liking books isn’t a bad vice, I think, and I’ll hardly bankrupt our family budget in doing so.

Sometimes, however, I’ll guiltily raid one of my piles, snatching a book that’s lain there goodness knows how long, with the end result that it’s somewhat dated in what it has to say. Take, for instance, my latest snatch, Bill Bryson’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After Twenty Years Away. Well, here’s a book that came out in 1999, or 12-years ago, and I’m reading it just now. I deserve what I get.

But sometimes there are dividends in doing a late read, as time’s passage can afford a new perspective. For example, Bryson, in a chapter called, “The Numbers Game,” has this paragraph, mind you, written pre-1999:

No matter where you turn with regard to America and its economy you are going to bump into figures that are so large as to be beyond meaningful comprehension. Consider just a few figures culled at random from this week’s papers. California has an economy worth $850 billion. The annual gross domestic product of the United States is $6.8 trillion. The federal budget is $12.6 trillion, the federal deficit near $200 billion (p. 51).

Well, let’s see what time’s warp has done to those stats.

Today, the worth of California's economy has swelled to $2 trillion.

The USA annual gross domestic product (GDP) is now over $15 trillion.

The approved federal budget for 2011 is currently at $3,360 trillion. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_United_States_federal_budget#Total_spending

As I write, the federal deficit exceeds $15 trillion. http://www.federalbudget.com/FederalBudget. The figures increase every second. Remember, it was just $200 billion when Bryson wrote his book 12-years earlier!

I don’t know about you, but I find this sobering, if not downright scary. We’ve gone from a budget mess to the very precipice. Ironically, the bailouts and stimuli to the economy, rather than helping us, are contributing to our economic malaise, turning the United States into a full scale deficit crisis. Somewhere, we’ve got to stop the fiscal hemorrhaging. Ok, my figures update Bryson’s 12-years ago. What’s going to happen over the next ten years? I don’t think any of us want to go there!

For a sense of just how much money is dripping away into interest payments on accumulated debt exceeding $15 trillion we can’t do better than Bryson’s fantasy analogy of earning one buck for each dollar you could initial to determine how long it would take you to earn just a trillion dollars:

If you initialed one dollar per second, you would make $1000 every seventeen minutes. After 12 days of nonstop effort you would acquire your first $1 million. Thus, it would take you 120 days to accumulate $10 million and 1,200 days--something over three years--to reach $100 million. After 31.7 years, you would be as wealthy as Bill Gates. But not until after 31,709.8 years would you count your trillionth dollar (and even then you would be less than one-fourth of the way through the pile of money representing America’s national debt). That is what $1 trillion is (p. 52).

As I’ve said, sometimes it’s serendipity to read a book later rather than sooner. Unfortunately, not many in the right places seem to be reading--or listening--at all. I think of other problems experiencing the “kick-the-can-down the road” syndrome,” for example, accelerating climate change, a nuclear Iran, a world with insufficient water, population overload.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.