$2 trillion: the ballpark figure du jour?

$2 trillion is a very popular number. When the right-wing hostage takers at long last agreed to a $2.1 trillion ransom for the debt ceiling, they left the impression that $2.1 trillion was a carefully calculated and negotiated number. Maybe it was. I rather doubt it, because a search on the phrase “$2.1 trillion” yields an array of citations that might lead one to believe that $2 trillion is less a mathematical calculation than a convenient ballpark number, easily thrown about when an economist or policy maker wants to make a big point with a big number.

Here are a few examples:

The Obama administration says that, in downgrading the U.S. credit rating to AA+,  Standard & Poor’s  made a significant mathematical mistake in a document it provided to the Treasury Department, overstating the federal debt by about $2 trillion over 10 years. “A judgment flawed by a $2 trillion error speaks for itself,” a Treasury spokeswoman said.

The Urban Land Institute says the United States, needs to invest $2 trillion to rebuild roads, bridges, water lines, sewage systems and dams that are reaching the end of their planned life cycles.

In 2009, stock owners, bankers, brokers, hedge-fund wizards, highly paid corporate executives, corporations, and mid-ranking managers pocketed—as either income, benefits, or perks such as corporate jets—an estimated $1.91 trillion that 40 years ago would have collectively gone to non-supervisory and production workers in the form of higher wages and benefits.

The global hedge fund industry now controls total assets worth $2.02 trillion, according to Hedge Fund Research. That’s up $102 billion from the first quarter of 2010 and is more than the industry had in the second quarter of 2008, when assets peaked at $1.93 trillion.

U.S. state and local governments spend close to $2 trillion annually on goods and services, according to an ABC News report.

Multicultural Americans buy over $2 trillion in goods and services annually, says Ethnoconnect.

The United States currently spends more than $2 trillion a year on health care, according to a White House statement.

According to the World Trade Organization, the total annual global trade in goods and services before the current economic crisis was approaching $40 trillion; but as much as $2 trillion of the total may be illicit money that has been illegally moved out of a country, or has been used to provide illegal kickbacks to corrupt executives or officials.

Counting the value of lives lost as well as property damage and lost production of goods and services, losses attributable to the terror attacks of September 11, 2011 already exceed $100 billion. Including the loss in stock market wealth — the market’s own estimate arising from expectations of lower corporate profits and higher discount rates for economic volatility — the price tag approaches $2 trillion.

Big American companies are sitting on almost $2 trillion of cash because there aren’t enough customers to buy additional goods and services, writes economist Robert Reich.

India’s Finance Minister recently said that successful implementation of his nation’s goods and service tax (GST) can give a trillion-dollar boost to the economy, taking the total output to $2 trillion in a short span of time.

Consumers aged 50 and older make up 27% of the total population and own between 70 and 79% of all financial assets. This group accounts for more than 40% of total consumer demand and control 50% of all discretionary spending. They buy $2 trillion worth of goods and services each year and spend 2.5 times as much as younger consumers on a per capita basis.

All in all, that’s a lot of $2 trillion chunks o’change.  Are all of those numbers based on anything—anything at all? They might be, but the proliferation of that particular figure makes me wonder a bit. And, taken in sum, they offer a 21st  Century update of a quip made famous by U.S. Senator Everett Dirksen [D-IL], who served in Congress from 1951-1969:  “A [tr]illion here, a [tr]illion there, pretty soon, you’re talking real money.”