The eights are about to do me in. We sailed through the perky paired-off twos, the odd but seemingly wholesome threes and the no-problem fours. Fives were a flash, easy as pie, and even the sixes and sevens seemed to go okay, but for some reason the crazy eights are throwing my third grader for a loop-de-loop. She’s my youngest child, and this being my third and final round as drill sergeant for multiplication tables, you’d think I had a few tricks up my sleeve by now. But no, I’m out of clever devices. I’ve got no patience left for creative games or “Multiplication Rock” jingles. Just a huff and scowl when we get to eight times four and she looks at me with those darling uncertain eyes and says, once again, “thirty four.”
“Sweetie, you need to know these quick, ‘Bam’ – off the top of your head, just like your addition facts. They’re the ABCs of numbers,” I say, “the building blocks of equations. From here on out, math will be a total drag if you don’t know, presto, that eight times four is 32, that eight times eight is 64. You might not even make it past third grade,” I add for dramatic effect, knowing immediately it was a mean mama thing to say and wishing I hadn’t.
So we continue to live with math flash cards scattered across the kitchen, and I keep up my guerrilla tactics, tossing out “eight times three? seven times eight?” at unsuspecting moments. At the same time I realize the absurd equations I foresee in the “from here on out” that I threatened her with. For there, under the flash cards on our catchall kitchen island, is the newspaper, with headlines flashing another set of modern math facts: “$787 Billion,” “$2.1 Trillion.” Supercalifragilistic numbers. Jedi numbers. Numbing numbers that couldn’t possibly be related to the humble building blocks American third graders are struggling to learn. Numbers I can’t even write out with the correct zero count. Numbers my daughter will inherit and will have to do major math with one day, since those gigantic numbers are now paired with words like “bailout” and “stimulus,” and ultimately “deficit.” I shake my head to refocus my glazed eyes, retreating to the comfort of basic homework problems. Eight times nine is 72.
As we wallow in the residual sludge from our decade of irrational exuberance, we’re left with what to me feels like more irrationalism. I’m delighted that we finally have intelligent, thinking leaders at our government helm, people actually able to use correct grammar in coherent sentences, but I’m baffled by the figures that tumble so nonchalantly off their tongues. As if any of us really knows what a trillion is. As if spending a trillion from a federal budget already deep in deficit is supposed to get us out of this mess. The mess caused, in large part, by Americans spending money we didn’t have on stuff we didn’t need. Here’s some math my third grade Brownie Scout can begin to appreciate: $1 trillion is enough to buy $1000 worth of Thin Mints or Do-si-dos for every person in the United States. How ’bout that, we’ve got a case of unsold Thin Mints in our dining room! Now there’s a stimulus plan.
Believe me, I hope the Washington wonks know what they’re doing as they crunch incomprehensible numbers and tally troubled assets while I’m checking elementary school math sheets. Yes, Wall Street greed and the oblivious sense of entitlement exhibited by CEOs infuriates me, but this large-scale abstraction scares me most of all. There’s a glossy romanticism to the numbers – 787 billion, 2.1 trillion – as if they’re good and impressive simply because they’re big, and in America, the bigger the better.
Just so we understand the sense of scale here: a trillion seconds is equal to 31,688 years. So if I’m working on my eights tables, it’s safe to say that eight times a trillion seconds equals a heck of a long, long time. How can any accountant or government watchdog or concerned taxpayer manage, oversee or even comprehend figures this big and abstract? This seems like the latest installment of our American frontier infatuation with more, more, more. No jobs? Spend more. Anemic economy? Spend more! Mass production, mass consumption, mass bailout.
I look to the poet, farmer and environmental prophet Wendell Berry for comfort and wisdom in baffling times like these. Berry has spent a lifetime cultivating and caring for his family’s land in Kentucky while thinking and writing about how economy is fundamentally tied to ecology. He has dirt under his fingernails. He understands tangible, concrete things like harvesting beans and real world livelihoods. Berry writes, “For most of the history of this country our motto, implied or spoken, has been Think Big. I have come to believe that a better motto, and an essential one now, is Think Little.”
By “thinking little” he means not assuming government can flash big, incomprehensible numbers and magically solve our problems. He means getting invested in your local economy, in local agriculture, in gardening, in civic discussion and action. He means changing our way of life from solely being consumers and exploiters to being caretakers, and understanding that in the littlest and most profound ways, we’re all connected, to each other and to the earth. “The principle of ecology,” he continues, “if we take it to heart, should keep us aware that out lives depend upon other lives and upon processes and energies in an interlocking system that, though we can destroy it, we can neither fully understand nor fully control. And our great dangerousness is that, locked in our selfish and myopic economics, we have been willing to change or destroy far beyond our power to understand. We are not humble enough or reverent enough.”
The current economic unpleasantness and bailout legislation holds much that is beyond my power to understand. But I’m working on Thinking Little. I can support small businesses and local farmers and share my talents, skills and resources with neighbors. I can be an example for my children on living within my means and not buying simply because marketing and branding experts tell me I should. I can be creative and resourceful and willing to pay a higher price if it means a product has integrity and a worker was paid a living wage. I can enjoy Thin Mints while doing multiplication tables. And be reverent, even when I’m at my wits end because eight times four, for the trillionth time, just isn’t adding up.