Remember when a billion dollars still seemed like a lot of money? Neither does anybody else. Consider: A newspaper revered for its ability to articulate the deepest concerns of the American people reported that the government's controversial TARP program could result in massive losses to taxpayers as a result of financial legerdemain. The putatively terrifying story, appearing under the headline "TARP Said To Be Ripe For Fraud," warned that the government's attempt to rescue the financial system could result in thievery costing taxpayers "tens of billions of dollars."
The story didn't even make page one.
And why should it? With a trillion-dollar deficit, a $787 billion economic stimulus package, following fast on the heels of an earlier $700 billion bank bailout, and now reports of a $2.3 trillion shortfall in the budget a few years hence, not to mention a possible $250 billion hit to the commercial real estate sector, who's going to get excited about a minuscule tens of billions of dollars in losses stemming from fraud? Pundits like to cite the famous quip attributed to Everett Dirksen, "A billion dollars here, a billion dollars there, and pretty soon you're talking real money," but this wisecrack is no longer relevant, much less true. No matter how many billions you string together in an era of multi-trillion-dollar deficits, bailouts and budgets, you can't come up with a number that would make anyone turn their head. A billion dollars is no longer real money. It's chump change.
You can see this by looking at earnings reports buried in the largely unread pages of the newspaper. A short while ago, Dow Chemical posted a $1.55 billion fourth-quarter loss. Once upon a time this would have been front-page, hold-the-presses news. No more. Today, $1.55 billion seems like pocket money. Same thing when Intel announced that it would take a $950 million write-off to account for the declining value of its investment in Clearwire. At this point, $950 million is starting to look like a rounding error. I'm surprised Intel even bothered to report it. And on the subject of...