How Much Is a Trillion Dollars?

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          The significance of much of the economic and financial data we talk about regarding debt, budgets, wealth, or incomes tends to lose its impact, because we really can’t imagine or appreciate the sheer magnitude of much of it.  It becomes necessary, frequently, to try to remind ourselves how much a million, or a billion, or a trillion really is.

          Let’s try a spatial analogy.  Maybe you are a retiring baby boomer, and your social security records shows that you made $1 million over your career.  Or, say your net worth at retirement is $1 million.  Not bad!  Once that would have been considered an incredible amount of money.  It’s still a decent chunk of change.  This net worth puts you somewhere in the middle of the dwindling middle class, somewhere in the top 20% (the top “quintile”) of Americans.

          Now let’s represent that $1 million spatially as a foot – a mere twelve inches.  Someone in the second quintile might have only and inch or two of wealth, or less.  There is virtually no wealth at all in the bottom 40% of Americans, so most of them would have assets unmeasurable on this scale.  

          There are 5,280 feet in a mile, so on this scale, someone with $5 billion in net worth would have a about a mile’s worth of wealth.  I read somewhere that the net worth of the Koch brothers increased by this amount just last year.  I’m going to start thinking about that each time I walk or run a mile.

          It’s hard to imagine what $1 trillion dollars on this scale would amount to.  It turns out to be a little over 189 miles.  Let’s do some traveling, incurring costs on this scale as we go.  Of course, since a person could travel only one foot on $1 million, you can’t go anywhere at all with your lifetime’s net worth.  You can’t even move. 

          But with $1 trillion, you could drive from my home in Albany NY and, taking the northern scenic route through Lowell, drive all the way to Boston, right up to the outskirts of town.  Back in the horse and buggy era, such a trip would take a few days, but today it’s about a 4-hour drive in a car.

         I like to think of it this way: If $1 million is a foot, $1 trillion is as long as the state of Massachusetts.

          The Forbes 400 wealthiest Americans, on this scale, could climb into buses and take the trip all the way to Boston, and have enough wealth left over to keep on going all the way out to Provincetown.  

          On an average day, the 120 million poorest Americans combined do not have enough wealth to get out of the kitchen to the garage.  The next 35 million above them do have roughly as much combined wealth as the Forbes 400, but they’re not going anywhere either.  In fact, it would be quite difficult for them to actually make the Boston trip together: Standing side by side, 3 feet apart and 3 deep, those people would stretch from California to Cape Cod. 

          And standing side by side, the entire bottom 155 million would stretch almost all the way around the world.

JMH – 3/21/11


 Here’s a couple more, from “”:

          “If right this moment you went out and started spending one dollar every single second, it would take you more than 31,000 years to spend one trillion dollars.”

          (Well, I can’t even imagine 30,000 years!  How many seconds are there in a day?? 86,400.  That’s $86,400/day…)

           “So just how big is the U.S. national debt in 2010?  Well, according to the U.S. Treasury Department, on June 1st the U.S. National Debt was $13,050,826,460,886.97.  For those not used to seeing such big numbers, that is over 13 trillion dollars.  To give you an idea of just how much a trillion dollars is, if you had started spending one million dollars every single day when Christ was born, you still would not have spent one trillion dollars by now.  And yet somehow the U.S. government has accumulated a debt of over 13 trillion dollars.”

         (Let’s see, about 2000 years, times 365 days – That’s about 730,000 million-dollar transactions…  No, that’s not right: it would take 13 million days — that’s 35,600 years.  Since Christ was born, a $million/day?  Only $730 billion.  Heck, that doesn’t even cover the Bush tax cut for the wealthy!)

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