Visualizing a Billion and a Trillion Dollars

BY MARTIN KICH

Any budget number can be made to sound exorbitant if doing so serves a political purpose. But the scope of our governmental budgets, as well as the scope of our economy, has long exceeded the ability of most of us to grasp the numbers—both viscerally and intellectually—in any meaningful way. Given the new administration’s penchant for making large numbers sound negligible and small numbers sound huge, it seems especially important for everyone to appreciate the differences between millions, billions, and trillions of dollars.

For instance the total spending on the NEA and the NEH in 2016 amount to just under $296 million, which sound like an enormous amount of money. But it is just .18% of the $4.1 trillion federal budget (that is, less than one fifth of one percent), and 1.97% to 1.18% of the projected $15 to $25 billion projected cost of constructing a wall along the border with Mexico.

The purpose of this short video is ostensibly to allow us to visualize the difference between a billion dollars and a trillion dollars, but I came away thinking that it actually highlights how nearly impossible it is for us to grasp the size of either number:

 

 

If the video falls short, perhaps the following images will be more helpful—or, if not that, at least marginally less unhelpful:

million-to-trillion-visualized one-trillion-dollars

 

3 thoughts on “Visualizing a Billion and a Trillion Dollars

  1. It is of course also wrong. 1 Trillion is *not* 960 (the number of minutes in 16 hours) larger than 1 Billion, it is three orders of magnitude exactly, ie 1000 (16.5 would have at least been close, and 16 hours and 40 minutes would have been right). A quick bit of back of the envelope suggests their distances are even further off (1km = 1,000m = 1,000,000mm; I do not think paper is that thin). Perhaps the issue this video highlights is why a lack of numeracy amongst humanity faculty and graduates is a problem.

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