Monday, February 25, 2013

How Big is Big?

As discussions of the budget and debt limit make the news, we hear about billions and trillions of dollars.  These numbers are so enormous that I can’t even picture them.

A million is big, but the Roman Empire, as big as it was, managed well with no Roman Numerals higher than 1000 (M).  Today, Americans dream of having a million dollars.  Everyone "wants to be a millionaire."  Based on the average income of about $50,000, it takes 20 years just to earn $1 million (before taxes).  At the rate of a dollar a minute, it would take almost 2 years (without sleeping) to spend it all.  A million miles is the distance an average automobile driver in the US travels in about 74 years.  To most of us, a million is a very big number.

A billion is one thousand million.  If you threw one billion one-dollar bills into a fire at a rate of one per second, you could keep it burning for 32 years.  A billion dollars represents the earnings for 500 of those average households over a lifetime.  A billion miles equals 2,093 trips to the moon and back.  These days we hear billions of dollars treated like pocket change.

A trillion is one thousand billion or a million million.  It's a huge number.  It’s hard to imagine any comparison that even makes sense.  A $17 trillion-dollar debt divided equally among all the citizens of the US comes out to $54,000 each, $216,000 for a family of four.  A child born today is instantly $54,000 in debt.  If you took a trillion one-dollar bills and glued them together at the edges, you could construct a quilt over 100 miles long and 40 miles wide.  It could cover the entire states of Delaware and Rhode Island, plus the District of Columbia with some left over.  A trillion seconds is more than 410 lifetimes, back to the time of the Neanderthals.  It takes all the drivers in the US working together about 7½ years to burn a trillion gallons of gasoline.

A trillion is an inconceivably huge number.  Even a billion is very large, yet in the coming weeks and months we will hear news reporters and politicians mentioning billions and trillions of dollars like they are commonly understood.  Doesn’t the fact that our government owes nearly $17 trillion that we and our children are responsible for deserve more than this ho-hum treatment?

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