When “Millionaire” Loses Its Meaning

Is "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" still appealing when the nation is more than $14 trillion in debt?

This debt-ceiling crisis has me thinking by numbers.

The United States is $14-plus trillion in debt. The current (what time is it?) compromise proposes more than $2 trillion in federal spending cuts. If there’s no deal in place by midnight tonight, the economy turns into a pumpkin.

One trillion equals a million million. You rarely see it written in numerical form. That’s because a trillion is so graphically overwhelming, it makes you want to lie down and take a nap.

A trillion has—count ‘em—12 zeroes. This is what a trillion looks like: 1,000,000,000,000. When blustery politicos throw the T-word around, it sounds ridiculous. Nobody, except maybe Stephen Hawking, can actually envision a trillion.

Remember when the feds talked in billions of dollars? These days, billions are a wistful memory, like nickel candy bars.

One billion equals a thousand million. It has nine zeroes, as in 1,000,000,000. McDonald’s, for example, has sold more than 200,000,000,000 burgers. Looks mighty big to me, but then I’m a size queen about animal protein.

There was a time, believe it or not, when a million dollars was a lot of money. Six zeroes! For most Americans, becoming a millionaire, or marrying one, was the ultimate fantasy. A million bucks and you were set for life, financial royalty.

The media got the message. In 1953’s “How to Marry a Millionaire,” Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall starred as New York models/roommates out to bag rich husbands. Naturally, they ended up finding true love.

From ’55 to ‘60, “The Millionaire” hit the jackpot for CBS. Michael Anthony (played by Marvin Miller), secretary to never-seen tycoon John Bersford Tipton (Paul Frees), each week presented a $1 million check— tax free—to a different needy stranger.

Almost six decades later, our fascination with millions and millionaires appears unabated, despite the fact that seven figures is chump change for rap stars, internet prodigies and drug dealers.

“Slumdog Millionaire” won eight Oscars in 2009, including Best Picture. ABC’s “Joe Millionaire,” a reality series, ran for a season in ‘03. Game show :Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” launched on ABC in ‘99, continues in syndication. Currently, ABC has two “Secret Millionaires,” one a reality show and the other a web comedy.

Back to those numbers, I fear it won’t be too long before we’re reminiscing about the good old days of “trillions.” Next stop: Quadrillion, a thousand million million. Follow the 15 zeroes—1,000,000,000,000,000.

Where’s my pillow? I’d rather count sheep.