How Much Is A Trillion?

May 11, 2012

Politicians — at the state and federal level — talk in numbers that most folks can’t visualize.  So how much is a trillion?  What does it mean to say that something costs a trillion dollars?  First, we have to clarify that we’re using the US system of numbers (short scale), not the British system (long scale).  Most of the time, if we’re talking about the things relating to the US political system, we are using the US sytem.

1 Thousand 1,000 103
1 Million 1,000,000 106
1 Billion 1,000,000,000 109
1 Trillion 1,000,000,000,000 1012
1 Quadrillion 1,000,000,000,000,000 1015
1 Quintillion 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 1018

The chart, however accurate, doesn’t put the number — one thousand billion — into perspective. Most of us know that the numbers are big, we just don’t know how to think of them in the context of our own lives. Here are some attempts, collected from around the Net:

  • A million seconds is 11.5 days.  A billion seconds is 32 years.  A trillion seconds is 32,000 years.
  • If we wanted to pay down a trillion dollars of the US debt, paying one dollar a second (no interest), it would take about 32,000 years. Western civilization has not existed for 32,000 years. Neanderthals in Europe disappeared approximately 35,000 years ago.
  • A tightly-packed stack of new $100 bills totaling $1 million would be about 4 feet high. A billion dollars, 4,000 feet high or equivalent to about three Sears Towers stacked on top of one another. That means a stack of $100 bills totaling $1 trillion would be 789 miles or 144 Mt. Everests stacked on top of one another.
  • Current estimates of the number of stars in the Milky Way ranges between 100 and 400 billion.
  • The earth is about 8,000 miles wide (diameter), and the sun is about 800,000 miles wide, not quite a million miles. The earth is about 93 million miles from the sun; this is about 491 billion feet. A dollar bill is about 6 inches long; thus a trillion dollar bills laid end-to-end would stretch further than the distance from the earth from the sun.
  • The 2007 U.S. federal budget totaled $2.8 trillion. The proposed 2009 budget is $3.1 trillion. Neither includes expenditures for the Iraq war.
  • In 2007, Microsoft generated $51 billion in revenue — that’s sales, not profits. To reach a trillion dollars in revenue, we’d need 20 Microsofts. [IBM’s revenue? 14.5 billion.]
  • A box that holds a case of copier paper will hold about $72,000 one-dollar bills. It would take 1.4 billion boxes to hold a trillion dollars.
  • It would take 1.8 trillion pennies to fill the Empire State Building.
  • With $1 trillion, everyone living in America in 2008 could have 1,000 boxes of Girl Scout cookies.

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