It Was Never Numbers

Just over a week ago, the world (at least in chemistry) celebrated Mole Day. Rather than acknowledge the small underground mammal that immediately springs to mind, Mole Day is in honor of Amadeo Avogadro, the Count of Quaregna and Cerreto, who lived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and contributed one of the major international base units in use today. Known as Avogadro’s Number, the Count figured that there is a constant number of constituent atoms or molecules contained in a given mass. The unit is denoted as one mole, thus Mole Day, and the number of individual units within one mole is always 6.022140857×10^23.

While Mole Day is intended to increase attention and interest in chemistry by a dazzling display of such big numbers, our human minds remain incapable of absorbing them. We are hardwired for our own visceral existence, of what we can perceive in front of us. Our brains deal with small numbers in accurate representations, while those beyond certain thresholds become abstractions or at best approximations.

It was this fact of life which drove central bankers especially in Japan toward massive “quantitative easing.” Because we can only conceive of something like trillions as an intangible concept, it was meant to be just so shocking. Though we cannot actually appreciate the precise difference between trillions and, say, billions, we do know there is one and that it is indescribably large even if unsure of exactly what that means.

For QQE in Japan, these big numbers were meant for exactly that kind of shock. So large was the “money printing” that investors, businesses, or Japanese households would have no choice but to act as if truly unthinkable “money printing” was the future, sustained course. And the numbers bear out that threat, as the latest update (through September 2016) to the BoJ numbers show ¥280.35 trillion in bank reserves. That is an increase of ¥227.7 trillion since QQE began; a 433% balance sheet expansion from one that was already greatly expanded.

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