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  • Just How Big Is $1 Trillion?

    Billion used to be a big number in the United States, but today trillion is tossed around with increasing regularity. We could use your help communicating its significance.

    Whether it’s the $14.3 trillion public debt or the $62 trillion owed for the government’s unfunded liabilities, the number is so large that many folks have no real comprehension of what it means. How, then, do you convey its size?

    Over the past year, my colleague Bill Beach and I have traveled to several cities across the country to talk about the debt crisis. Our audience is the Debt-Paying Generation, young professionals under 40 who are on course to inherit a country plagued by unprecedented levels of debt.

    Talking about these large numbers can be a challenge, so we tackle the trillion-dollar question early on. A few examples of how we explain it:

    • 1,000 billion
    • $1,000,000,000,000 (that’s 12 zeros)
    • At $45.8 million per year, LeBron James would need to work 21,843 years
    • Average life in the U.S. lasts 2.4 billion seconds
    • One billion seconds ago = 1979
    • One trillion seconds ago = 29,700 BC

    Some of these work better than others depending on how you relate to large numbers. So as we prepare for our next presentation in Raleigh, NC, on Thursday night, we have a question for you: How would you explain $1 trillion?

    Please leave a comment below with any examples.

    UPDATE — June 17, 9:07 a.m.: Thanks for all of the suggestions. Beach and I had a great presentation in Raleigh last night and used some of these to explain the size of a trillion dollars. Click here to view our presentation.

    Posted in Scribe [slideshow_deploy]

    61 Responses to Just How Big Is $1 Trillion?

    1. Zack says:

      Remember: Under 8 years of Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, America loss over 10 million jobs, the housing market collapsed, the debt ceiling was raised 7 times, unemployme­nt doubled, and the deficit surpassed $11.5 trillion! And now Republican­s want back in to give more tax cuts to the wealthy so they can finish the financial destructio­n they started in 2000!

      Yes Heritage, we all know just how big $1 Trillion dollars is. 65% of that $14.3 Trillion was added under Conservative/Republican Administrations and Congressional control. http://www.treasurydirect.gov.

      The very policies that Heritage promotes is the reason we are in this mess. Oh Heritage, about that indivual mandate that you supported not too long ago. Keep posting anti-"obamacare" blogs because it really helps your credibility :)

      …yawn…

      • GGG says:

        Thanks for the SUGGESTIONS Zack…. very helpful

      • ShoelessAJ says:

        I believe what you may be neglecting is that most of what you're referencing with job loss and housing crashes took place under a Democratic Congress.
        Quick lesson in government for you… who holds the checkbook and passes a budget? Congress. Yay!

      • Tiger3alpha says:

        The debt ceiling was never raised under the Bush Admin. Nor was the Credit rating of our Country EVER a "B" like it is now. And NEVER have we had a National debt close to $14 trillion.

      • chuck says:

        It is amazing how that something can be said as a matter of fact when in fact there is questionable truth to the statement. Recently the washington post fact checker stated that the change in the national debt for the year 2011 that the national debt increased as a result of the economy 46%, Obama policy 44% and the effect of Bush 10%. Bush had alarge effect on the national debt as a result of the cutting of the taxes, restructuring the income tax laws and tthe wars. Obama continued the same tax cuts, the same wars and the ineffective bail out he has added almost 1.3 trillion dollars to the debt. It is important to note that he has only been in offiice 3 years. Bush"s contribution to the national debt is 12 years and the effect is compounded over time.

    2. Bryan, DC says:

      According to the population reference Bureau 106.5 trillion people have ever been alive, just short of twice what the government currently owns in Liabilities.

    3. Henry says:

      I so have a problem with trillions. Why does America continue to send 6 billion here 3 billion dollars there and forgive Egypt's debt to America worth another 6 plus billion? We cannot afford social security and medicare for our own people, but we have trillions of dollars to give to foreign countries and be policeman for the entire world. America has military bases all over the world. We get involved in every war around the world. America has lost more men and women in war on foreign soil than any other nation.

      NOW TELL ME ABOUT 14 TRILLION DOLLAR DEBT ON OUR CHILDREN AND GRANDCHILDREN.

      SO WHAT IS GOING ON IN OUR WORLD?

    4. sbenard says:

      Here's a depiction that I've seen illustrated 2-3 times and I copied it to my blog:

      $1 trillion is $100 bills bundled in packets, then stacked on common shipping pallets. Those pallets are stacked two high and fill the space of a football field. The depictions I have seen showed various images of the stacks of $100 bills that represented $1 million and $1 billion, then a pallet of $100 bills with a person standing next to the pallet, then a person standing next to two pallets stacked, and finally, with that person standing next to a football-sized field of pallets of $100 bills.

      If is difficult for the finite mind to comprehend an amount that represents near infinity, but this depiction and images helped me to try to grasp the magnitude. I'm now convinced that economic armageddon is inevitably, and that we must therefore prepare for the day when we will, of a certainty, hit the debt brick wall.

    5. sbenard says:

      P.S. Just checked the pictures and info on my blog. Each picture described below had a person standing next to the $100 bills.

      $1 million is represented by packets of $100 bills about half the size of a brief case.

      $100 million is represented by packets of $100 bills filling ONE standard-sized shipping pallet.

      $1 billion is represented by packets of $100 bills on TEN standard-sized shipping pallets.

      $1 trillion is represented by packets of $100 bills on standard-size shipping pallets, stacked two pallets in height, covering roughly the size of a football field.

    6. Lisa, San diego says:

      If you made 100 million dollars a year it would take you 10,000 years to reach a trillion

    7. Brian, Iowa says:

      over 40 million times around the earth…

    8. George Colgrove, VA says:

      I will yield to President Reagan on this one. During his campaign and in a warning to a joint session of Congress he stated that the national debt is approaching $1 trillion.

      He said "A trillion dollars, would be a stack of $1,000 bills 67 miles high." He started that analogy with the visual that a $1 million stack would only be about 4 inches high!

      The total distance of the DC Beltway is 64 miles. So one could say that with this analogy the federal government was already surrounded in debt by the time Reagan assumed office.

      Assuming normal traffic, it can take 1.5 hours to drive the entire beltway (being optimistic here!)

      To extend this analogy to the current deficit ($1.6 trillion), one would need to drive 107 miles (2.6 hours) on the beltway or 1.7 times around.

      To extend this analogy to the current national debt ($14.3 trillion), one would need to drive 958 miles (23 hours) on the beltway or 15 times around.

      To extend this analogy to the current unfunded mandates ($61 trillion), one would need to drive 4087 miles (4 days) on the beltway or 64 times around.

      To extend this analogy to the current unfunded mandates and bailout effects ($100 trillion), one would need to drive 6,700 miles (6 days and 14 hours) on the beltway or 105 times around.

      The length of the mainland US/Canada border is 3,987 miles. The length of the mainland US/Mexico border is 1,933 miles. The total mainland US coastline is 5,089 miles. Therefore, the entire mainland border is 10,809 miles. The federal government’s greed, self-serving behavior, incompetence, ponzi schemes, and deception would envelope 62% of the mainland US border if we use Reagan’s analogy.

      Ready to stop yet?

    9. George Colgrove, VA says:

      Sometimes when one makes something big they lose the ability to comprehend the size. Trillion is an astronomical measurement.

      To put this at a more personal level, the human body has a density close to that of water. An average person weight is around 155 lbs, which gives an approximate body volume of 2.5 cubic feet.

      If we see the entire human body as a trillion, then the question becomes what is 1?

      Well, a trillionth of an average human body is 0.00007 cubic millimeters (sorry for crossing over to metric). A millimeter is about as small as we can visualize from what we learned in our primary and secondary schooling. This comes out to being 7,000 cubic micrometers. A typical cell is about 1000 cubic micrometers.

      Therefore, if the body were a trillion, one would be a group of 7 average sized human cells. Something you could only see with a high optic microscope. Considering our total unfunded liabilities are close to $100 trillion. To see one, in this case would begin requiring electron microscopes.

    10. Ron, Ft Worth says:

      On average, the human head grows 100,000 strands of hair. It would take 10 million people to grow 1 trillion strands of hair.

    11. Zack says:

      hey moderators, be men, grow a set of balls and post my comment. I know your cowards but silencing the voice of opposition is just plain pathetic! :)

    12. Mike, Loganville GA says:

      At LeBron's current salary of $45.8 million, if every player on the Miami Heat was LeBron James, and every player on all the other teams in the NBA was LeBron James, and every state in the USA had its own separate NBA full of teams staffed entirely with LeBron James, the combined payroll is still about $4 billion short of one trillion dollars ($996,150,000,000,000).

    13. Brian, FL says:

      No human, ever, has had 1 trillion heart beats.

    14. Dan Crummett, Stillw says:

      Water Over the Falls

      By Dan Crummett

      The immensity of the National Debt is quite tough to comprehend, because any number with 12 zeros is not something that most of us can comprehend.

      I did a bit of calculation with swimming pool volumes, and dollars as gallons and ounces and the numbers were still more than the average American could grasp easily — and average Americans are those who need to realize the enormity of the debt with which they are saddling themselves and their children by continuing to vote for politicians who tell them they can have it all.

      The comparison that seemed to be somewhat easy to understand was the one in which I assigned $1 per gallon of water flowing over Niagra Falls at an average flow — 4 million gallons per minute. At that rate, Niagra Falls would run 6 years without stopping before it flowed enough water to equal our current $14 trillion National Debt!

      Now, when some Progressive tells you a $100 billion cut in the federal budget is "draconian" and would produce "starvation of elderly and infants," remember that amount would run Niagra Falls 17 days — that's just over two weeks of 6 years!

      And, when you take that example further, to the $380 million many are saying the most recent budget agreement yielded in actual federal spending cuts, that amounts to slightly more than an hour and a half! So much for a great budget accomplishment.

      Now what are we doing about it? Not much. By the end of this year, we will have added another $1.5 trillion to the National Debt, or another 260 days — roughly a "school year" to the expected flow Niagra Falls in our example.

      Given that, if you don't understand the nation has a problem when the current Administration drags its feet on allowing economic growth through less regulation, policies that would encourage hiring, and a revitalization of our own energy sector — which would do both as well as cut our daily spending on energy sources — then you aren't paying attention, or you are too stupid to be allowed to vote!

      To watch the debt flowing over the falls visit: http://www.usdebtclock.org/

    15. Marc Schraeder says:

      From http://www.ehd.org/science_technology_largenumber

      The height of a stack of 1,000,000,000,000 (one trillion) one dollar bills measures 67,866 miles. This would reach more than one fourth the way from the earth to the moon.

    16. Dean, Dallas says:

      You cannot even key in 1 Trillion on most conventional calculators without using scientific notation.

    17. mo dublin tx says:

      how about at the current debt ceiling each person, not family, owes 48,000 if we were to pay off the debt today. thats 300 million people divided by the debt. my family would owe 240,000. sleep well america

    18. Bill York, PA says:

      One billion seconds ago = Iran holding US hostages at US embassy in Tehran

      One trillion seconds ago = First humans arrive in Europe, Neanderthals go extinct, last ice age has not begun

      14.3 trillion seconds ago = 2000 centuries before first known homo sapiens

    19. jerry redmond says:

      stack up the bucks in 3 piles, a million, a billion and a trillion.

      pictures always work

    20. Steve, Bristol, TN says:

      I have been telling people that if we froze the national debt at its current level and somehow convinced the federal govenrment to live within its means and ignored inflation and stopped paying interest and then started paying $100 per second on the debt it would take over 4,500 years to pay it off. How did we get to that level in only 235 years? And by the way, $100 per second is $3,153,600,000 per year – not exactly chunck change.

    21. Bob Soucek, Tulsa OK says:

      We cannot grasp the billion and trillion numbers. If we thought of a trillion dollars as $1,000 (something that we could understand), then a billion would be one dollar. In my example we would currently have a yearly deficit of $1,500. Congress was spending a lot of time talking about spending cuts which only amounted to $30 on the Democrat's side and $60 on the Republican side. It hardly matters. But as a CPA, I listen intently on the talk about increasing taxes. All you hear is that many millionaires do not pay taxes, yet when they talk about tax increases, they start with taxpayers making $250,000. Spending has to be cut now. You cannot have 47% of the taxpayers paying nothing and expect the remaining 53% to subsidize them.

    22. MrShorty, Cave Creek says:

      If you had a million pennies, you would have $10,000. If you had a trillion pennies, you would have $10 billion dollars and never have to work another day in your life.

    23. George Colgrove, VA says:

      In 2009, 2.64 billion $1 dollar bills were printed at a rate of 11 million $1 bills printed daily.

      It would take 90,909 days to print 1 trillion $1 dollar bills or 364 years (exclusive of federal holidays and weekends.)

      Considering that in the days of George Washington through FDR the feds hardly reached 10% of that rate, it is very likely this country has never printed a trillion $1 bills or for that matter, all denominations added together!

      For that matter, it is likely that the US Engraving Bureau has never even printed a total of $1 trillion in cash.

    24. MrShorty, Cave Creek says:

      The land area of the United States is 3.8 million square miles. There are 27.8 million square feet in a square mile. So the land area of the United States is 106.4 trillion square feet. If our population was 1 trillion people, each person would have approximately the space of a 10 x 10 foot room to call their own.

    25. Rob, Denver says:

      A person with $1.0 trillion would have to spend over $114,000,000 (that's $114 MILLION) each hour, 24 hours per day for an entire year before he or she ran out of money.

    26. Rob, Denver says:

      A person with $1.0 trillion would have to spend more that $114,000,000 (that's $114 MILLION) each hour, 24 hours a day, seven days a week for an entire year before he or she had no more money left.

    27. Richard D Volkman, P says:

      The tension derived from the observation that both Bush and Obama ran up big debt, can be assuaged by the phrase, "Two wrongs don't make a right."

      There are alternatives, new choices to make regarding future fiscal policies.

      We get to choose a new man, or not.

    28. Jay A Anema Seattle, says:

      There are millionaires and billionaires but no trillionaires. The combined assets of all the billionaires could fall short of one trillion.

    29. Ontario, CA says:

      one trillion dollars would be a stack of one hundred dollar bills 46 miles high where a million would only be 4-4.5 inches.

    30. Louis F. Lollar, Hun says:

      Can you spend a dollar a second?

      How about $60 a minute?

      Maybe $3600 an hour would be easier?

      Finally, $86,400 a day might be reasonable.

      Anyway, if you could keep up your spending:

      It would take you about eleven days and fourteen hours to spend one million dollars.

      It would take you about 31 years and eight months to spend one billion dollars.

      AND, it would take you and 30 to 40 generations of your family the

      31,688 years needed to spend one trillion dollars (at a $1 a second).

      Our federal government just added one trillion dollars to our national debt between the years of 2008 and 2009, and we need to spend more?

      Have a nice day.

    31. Zack says:

      hey George….Reagan's analogy? That bad actor turned worse politician almost tripled the national debt and had the highest long standing unemployment rate in history. You guys really need to stop using that disaster of a President for credibility or economic reference.

    32. David Reid, Snellvil says:

      If you were to spend $1 million every day from the day that Jesus Christ was born until today, you will not have spent $1 trillion.

    33. Frank Fernandes Aust says:

      One Million seconds is 11.57 days.

      One Billion seconds is 31 years.

      One Trillion seconds is 31,000 years.

    34. MikeM says:

      If Ben Bernanke were to decide to print $1 trillion bills with Obama's face on them during QE72, handing 14 of these bills to our debtors STILL WOULDN'T PAY OFF OUR NATIONAL DEBT!!!

    35. Patrick says:

      Using the Empire State building to illustrate large sums of money is always fun.

      You would need to place 5,266 Empire State buildings on top of each other to reach the height of a stack of one billion silver dollar coins.

      However, You would need to place 5,266,666 Empire State buildings on top of each other to reach the height of a stack of one Trillion silver dollar coins.

      I would use a chart to show the incredible gap between a billion and a trillion.

      OR in dollar bills:

      You would need to place 287 Empire State buildings on top of each other to reach the height of a stack of one billion dollar bills.

      However, You would need to place 287,000 Empire State buildings on top of each other to reach the height of a stack of one Trillion dollar bills.

      I am blown away that the federal government can find ways to spend 3 to 4 trillion a year. Up to a couple of years ago that's more than China's entire GDP.

    36. John, Chattanooga says:

      Zack, really? How about some examples of where big-government, higher-tax policies have enhanced the nation's overall prosperity.

      I'm not sure how you defend greater deficit spending by saying George Bush ballooned the deficit. Seems a little backward to me.

      I didn't see you mention the part that progressive heroes Chris Dodd and Barnie Frank played in the whole housing fiasco.

      It's also convenient that 9/11 didn't play a part in your assessment. What excuse does Obama have? Is it still Bush's fault that nothing Obama's done for the economy has worked?

    37. damnyankee84, Alabam says:

      $1 Trillion – if a lottery grand prize were $1,000,000,000,000 and 10,000 people had the same numbers, each would win $100 MILLION.

    38. Arnold, Tulsa, OK says:

      Only members of congress are able to understand a trillion is only 6 digits more than a million. They consider the rest of us as being too stupid to get the insignificant difference.

    39. Judy, Washington says:

      Zack is dead wrong on all of his points. Obama has added more debt than all the Presidents combined in just 2 long years.

    40. NameWithheldByReques says:

      Last three are best, the last one the very best. Best foot forward: remember that?

    41. Gary C says:

      Zack,

      You're right; let's use the current president as an example.

    42. MrShorty, Cave Creek says:

      Hey Zach, where did you find your information on Reagan's unemployment rate? In Obama's manual for economic recovery?

    43. Tracy says:

      ZACK, We have had a democratic ruled congress since 2007. This administration has driven the car in the ditch. In fact, democrats have been in control a mojority of the time in the history of our nation. Get educated…we are going down the tubes as a free nation.

    44. Mike, Wichita Falls says:

      $1T in $1 bills laid end to end would not quite reach the center of the sun.

    45. AD says:

      If you live 85 years – from the day of your birth, you would need to spend $32MM/day to go through $1T!

      And the govt is going to borrow that this year, and a bunch more.

      We are in the very best of hands.

    46. Oklahoma City says:

      The federal debt limit, $14.294 trillion, divided by the population of 308,745,538 (2010 census) men, women, and children–citizens, immigrants, and illegal aliens–gives a debt of $46,297.03 per capita. By contrast, a full-time, year-round minimum-wage job–an achievement that probably 35% to 40% of Americans (singles, couples, and families of normal working age) lack in this Obamanation–pays only $15,020 per year. Gross domestic product is $47,812.37 per capita.

      In any case, the best way to relate multi-trillion-dollar (or any other government spending or revenue) amounts is to compare them to the average household budget.

      How about an 80% federal income tax (no deductions except an exclusion for billionaires, as is politic) on the working poor? It's coming because the Congress can't satiate their spending appetite. They'll tax the working poor literally to death–or at least as an inducement to drive them into the welfare classes. The rich don't have the money to pay, and the super-rich can afford the lobbyists and political campaign contributions to purchase an exemption (and a subsidy from the working poor who don't buy their exemptions).

    47. Normbv says:

      Hey Zack,

      So yea, Reagan ran up a debt. And perhaps there were high unemployment numbers for a time. I haven't checked the "tripling of the debt" under his presidency, but the question to ask about this would be "what did we get for those measures?" Answer: the demise of the Soviet Union and an economy that grew by the size of West Germany's in the day it existed. (Yeah that it now is unified with East Germany, another Reagan triumph.) Now then, what is your problem with a debt that proportionally went way way down relative to the size of our economy? Do you not like economic growth or something? I guess you're in good steed with the likes of Obama and the other statists.

    48. Shawn Millar, GA says:

      A man born during the Big Bang would have to save $921 dollars a year in order to be able to pay the current debt of the United States.

      How about if someone started when the Earth was just starting to form about 4.5 billion years ago? Well, someone would need to save about $3,091 every year in order to be able to pay off our debt.

      650 million years ago, Jelly Fish first began to form in the oceans. If a brand new jelly fish wanted to pay our debt, it would need to save $23,200 every year.

      What if a Dinosaur wanted to pay the debt and started saving 250 million years ago? $55,680 a year.

      What if the first humans, the Neanderthals were able to conceive of the giant debt we would run up, and wanted to help out starting around 200 thousand years ago? Well, he would need to save $69,600,000 (70 million) dollars a year,

      The first cities started showing up about 6,000 years ago. What would a guy from Africa or Egypt need to save in order to be able to pay off the debt? $2,320,800,000 (2.3 billion) per year.

      And lastly, America was founded back in 1776. So let’s say George Washington found the fountain of youth, and decided he would take care of America for another 235 years. In order for George to pay off our debt, he would have to save $59,742,489,270.38 (almost 60 billion) a year. (Or $163,678,052.78 – 163 million dollars a day)

      Updated with current numbers from my essay of 2 years ago. Original posted here.

      http://www.latenet.com/blog/view_blog.php?b_id=33

    49. Zack says:

      Judy,

      I'm dead wrong on all my points?

      Is that your comeback….really, is that your response?

      Obama added 11.5 trillion to the national debt since Jan. 20, 2009? REALLY JUDY, REALLY? so the national debt is now….23 trillion dollars?…. weird.

      Did Bush not raise the ceiling 7 times?

      Did Bush not double the debt?

      Did we not lose over 10 million jobs during his presidency?

      Was 65% of that $14.3 Trillion not added under Conservative/Republican Administrations and Congressional control? Is guess http://www.treasurydirect.gov is some communist liberal source right?

      Gary,

      substance, substance, substance, no talking points…

      John,

      do you have evidence that lowering taxes helped the economy? I have detailed evidence against that claim and I will wait for you to ask….Infact, every single time in history that the marginal tax rate has lowered, unemployment increased, we had slower gdp growth and less jobs were created

      fannie and freddie were less then 15% of total market share for the housing market from 1999-2009 which eliminates your claim. the bottom line losses in the private sector for lending was 700% greater then g.s.e.'s and any other lenders under c.r.a. government controlled lending was not near as bad as the losses in the private sector. fannie and freddie is just another deflection used by conservatives to devert attention from the failures of the free market in the housing market. nice try though…

      who's next?

      you guys are pathetic and I don't care if that sounds rude.

      study economic and legislative history and stop depending on heritage and feeding into their garbage.

    50. Zack says:

      by the way. from 2006-2008 in the "democratic controlled congress" less the 7% of the democrat sponsored bills became public law. 93% of all legislation in the during that time was republican sponsorship. also, Bush the the highest veto record in history. http://www.opencongress.org. http://www.votesmart.org.

      another interesting fact. from the 103rd-109th congress, not a single bill for regulatory reform from the housing market was passed. both houses controlled by the republican majority…..not a single bill and you blame one finance comittee chair Barney Frank as if he had power over 534 other elected officials.

      pathetic….:)

    51. Zack says:

      is it possible for just one of you to say. "ok, yes conservative republican leadership, administrations, congressional control has added just as much to the national debt" is that possible? is it possible to say President Bush made many many mistakes? I can say President Obama has made many many mistakes. You guys act as if everything bad in this country is Obama's fault. Its like listening to children. I provide sources and evidence and the response i get is "zack, educate yourself". really? You are taking "facts" from The Heritage Foundation! That's all that needs to be said.

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    54. Steve, Bristol, TN says:

      Zack,

      Would you like me to send you links to all of the articles where Heritage and other conservative groups criticized many Bush policies and pointed out many of his mistakes? If I had as much time as you seem to have on your hands, I'm sure I could send you hundreds if not thousands.

      Why is it always blame it on the last guy (except of course when the last guy was a democrat)? Rather than owning up to and dealing with the problems that exist now, liberals are bent on twisting statistics and making up facts and talking about how bad the last guy messed it up. The 111th Congress accumulated $3.22 trillion dollars in new debt in just 2 years. That’s 22.5% of the total debt by real math. But we can't change the past, so why not focus on what is going to be done now and in the future to fix the problems we have, rather than just talking about how bad the last guy messed it up?

      Federal spending is the problem that needs to be stopped – The party in charge while the spending is going on is irrelevant.

      By the way, we are all still waiting for that detailed evidence you have proving that lowering taxes hurts the economy.

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