Trillions and Quadrillions

02/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

My HuffPo of 29July08, entitled, Billions and Trillions, provided an almost startling number: $240 billion or $0.24 trillion. That was the total amount the United States spent, in 2008 dollars, for the Manhattan Project (to bring a quick end to World War II), the Marshall Plan (which built the foundation for a strong Western Europe against communism) and the Apollo Project (which was the seed that bankrupted the Soviet Union, leading to the end of the Cold War). Startling, because that was cheap, recalling Congress just setting aside $700 billion to rescue Wall Street and Barack Obama negotiating a trillion dollar stimulus package with the Congress.

On October 14, I followed with Billions and Trillions Revisited. I noted that the average U.S. Department of Energy annual budget for renewable energy research over the past decade was under $1 billion. The brand new nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS H.W. Bush, which will be commissioned on 10January09, cost taxpayers $4.5 billion. This will be our tenth Nimitz-class carrier, and the last.

However, on the horizon are the Gerald R. Ford class nuclear carriers, the first to cost $8 billion, not including the $5 billion R&D being expended to insure for the producing the finest. It's a toss-up if the initial version will be called the Gerald R. Ford or America. The second has already been reserved as the USS Arizona. We're now up to $21 billion to scare the Russians and Chinese into they, likewise, investing in their future.

Do we have a vote on these matters? I have a problem with big ticket Defense expenditures in these days of rinky-dink terrorism. But the first one of this new series is still on the drawing board. Obama Team: you want to initiate change and reduce (or, at least delay) spending? Here is one for consideration.

But to go on, the profits of the top four oil companies alone were $100 billion in 2007 and Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz in his book estimates the cost of the Middle East wars to be $3,000 billion or $3 trillion. In June, the International Energy Agency said that the world needs to spend $45 trillion to halve planet-warming carbon dioxide by 2050. We have a growing problem because it's hard to focus on Peak Oil and Global Warming when oil is selling for $40/barrel and it is freezing outside. According to some reports, Europe and other parts of the world are experiencing record low temperatures. Remember. too, that my most recent post feared that no vital decisions would be made on these issue because there is no present energy or environmental crisis.

Well, anyway, summer is still to come, who knows what next shock looms and we are beginning to enter new territory: quadrillion dollars. A Katrina victim is suing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for $3 quadrillion. NASA once reported that an ounce of anti-matter would cost $2.3 quadrillion to manufacture, if they could do it. All this is meaningless, of course, but five years ago, reported that global warming solutions could cost up to $18 quadrillion, which was the highest end determination of expenditures required by 2100 of the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2003. But who takes them seriously? Not the G8 nations.

There is, though, at least one almost official sounding sum from the Bank of International Settlements: $1.144 quadrillion, which was the amount of outstanding derivatives worldwide at the end of last year. That would be equal to about $170,000 for each of the 6.7 billion people on Planet Earth. Mind you, this is funny money, for the current value of all the stocks and bonds around the globe is less than one tenth of a quadrillion dollars. Derivatives are unregulated and high-risk credit bets. Think Bernard Madoff. Warren Buffett, in a 2003 Fortune magazine issue, called derivatives the equivalent of financial weapons of mass destruction, and, surely enough, they actually exploded this fall.

But a quadrillion is 1,000,000,000,000,000--and only has 15 zeros. I calculated in SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Planet Earth (see box on right) that the odds of any of us being born were 1 chance in 1 with 34 zeros. A googol has 1 followed by 100 zeros. There are many stories, but the most accurate one is that the founders of Google misspelled googol, and, anyway, was available, and was not. For the record, the largest number with a name is the googleplex, which is one followed by...bah, this is getting too scientific. So we have a long way to go before our economy runs out of numbers.