Buffalo Bull

Issue E.2 — Sunday, 2011.09.18

Billions and Trillions of Dollars

(Note: I'd like to claim credit for the idea in the following, but I can't. I heard it many years ago, but it bears repeating, especially when conversations about deficits and budgets and the sorry state of the economies are so much in the news.)

How do we conceive of numbers in the billions or trillions? Especially when it comes to money, what is a million? (That is, what is a million euros or a million dollars?

One way to think of these large numbers is to compare them with time.

Lets start with a second.

A thousand (1,000) seconds is almost 17 minutes. You can also call this a Kilosecond.

A million (1,000,000) seconds is almost 11.6 days. More precisely, it's a little less than 11 days 14 hours. You can also call this a Megasecond.

A billion (1,000,000,000) seconds is almost 31.7 years. More precisely, it's about 31 years, 8 months, and around a week. You can also call this a Gigasecond.

A trillion (1,000,000,000,000) seconds is almost 31,689 years. You can also call this a Terasecond.

So, in terms of seconds, each of us can experience a billion, maybe two billions, in a typical lifetime. A trillion seconds is beyond known, recorded history.

So what does a billion dollar deficit mean? There are about 312 million people in the U.S.A. If we each pitched in a dollar a day, we could pay off a billion dollars in less than four days.

A trillion dollar deficit, however, is another matter. At a dollar a day, that will take us almost nine years, not counting interest. So if we each contributed nine dollars a day, we could pay it off in a year (again, not counting interest), in time to run up another deficit of the same size the next year. For a family of four, that's 36 dollars a day. around $13,000 a year. Unless you see the typical family having that much spare cash around each year, we're going to be going deeper and deeper into debt for a very long time.

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