Among the effects of the recent and now renewed credit strains in the global economy is that investors have lost touch with relative magnitudes. For example, a billion dollars effectively represents about $3.20 for every adult and child in the U.S., while a trillion dollars represents about $3,200 dollars per person. From our standpoint, among the most important research coordination that government provides comes from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which funds basic medical research in cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's, autism, and other conditions, and where the total annual budget is about $31 billion annually (roughly $1,000 per American). Add in just over $7 billion in research through the National Science Foundation, and about $1,200 per citizen a year is spent by the government on essential medical and non-military scientific research through these agencies. These figures pale in comparison to the amounts that are increasingly demanded in order to make bondholders whole on their voluntary, bad investments. The Federal Reserve provided an amount equal to the entire NIH budget simply to backstop the rescue of Bear Stearns, which allowed Bear Stearns bondholders to receive 100 cents on the dollar, plus interest. In return, the Fed got questionable assets that it pouched into a shell company called "Maiden Lane," which were later reported to have "underperformed."
Incomprehensibly large bailout figures now get tossed around unexamined in the wake of the 2008-2009 crisis (blessed, of course, by Wall Street), while funding toward NIH, NSF and other essential purposes has been increasingly squeezed. At the urging of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Europe has been encouraged to follow the "big bazooka" approach to the banking system. That global fiscal policy is forced into austere spending cuts for research, education, and social services as a result of financial recklessness, but we've become conditioned not to blink, much less wince, at gargantuan bailout figures to defend the bloated financial institutions that made bad investments at 20- 30- and 40-to-1 leverage, is Timothy Geithner's triumph and humanity's collective loss.
The most depressing display of math-illiteracy by investors last week was the excitement over a report suggesting that France and Germany had agreed to a 2 trillion euro bailout package for Europe, which triggered a "risk-on" tone for the rest of the week, even after the report was retracted as inaccurate. It was almost beyond belief that investors took that report seriously, but people have become so tolerant of unbelievably large figures that virtually any bailout number can now be tossed out without triggering the least bit of scrutiny. Notably, 2 trillion euros is more than the GDP of France, and is half the GDP of Germany and France combined. Moreover, Europe has just gone through a tooth-pulling process just to approve 440 billion euros for the European Financial Stability Fund (EFSF) from all EU members combined.