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# How can you visualize a trillion dollars?

With GwB and his NeoCONs gifting Americans a National Debt which surpassed \$10 trillion on 30 Sept 2008, how does it make sense that it will take "generations" to pay it off? Just how large is this, really?
Ok. I'm not the brightest bulb in the pack when it comes to math, but I wanted to imagine what a trillion dollars looks like. My former colleague at Cornell, Carl Sagan, used to speak of the number of Stars in the Universe as being "billions and billions".  A trillion is a thousand billion, or a million million.  In simple written numbers: A million is 1,000,000. A billion is 1,000,000,000. A trillion is 1,000,000,000,000. Easy enough.
So how tall is a stack of a trillion \$1 bills? I'm sure someone will check my math done on a pocket calculator, but here goes.
A Ream (500 sheets) of ordinary copy paper like you use in your computer printer is about 2 inches tall. Paper that our Greenbacks are printed on may be a little thiner, but this is close enough for government work.
Therefore, a foot (12") of paper is about 3,000 sheets. 3,000 sheets x 5,280 feet per mile = 15,840,000 sheets per mile. Are we getting close? Not really. That's only about 16 million bucks, chunk change to our Congressional Critters.
OK. If we divide 1,000,000,000,000 sheets by 15,840,000 sheets per mile, we should get approximately how many MILES high a stack of a trillion Dollar Bills would be.
Canceling out zeros and rounding off so I can fit numbers into my limited calculator window, I come up with a little over 63,000 miles.
But the National Debt we are giving to our children and their children is not ONE, but TEN trillion dollars.
So the National Debt would be a stack of \$1 bills 630,000 miles high. That part was easy.
But how do I visualize how tall IS a stack 630,000 miles high?
Well, the Earth is about 238,900 miles from our Moon. Divide it out, and this stack would reach from the Earth to the Moon 2.5 times. That means a complete roundtrip to the Moon, and half way back again.
Or try this: our Earth is 24,907 miles around at it's Equator.  Divide that out, and a stack of \$1 bills representing our National Debt would reach around the Earth 25 times.
But, hold on. The National Debt is GROWING at a rate averaging about 5 million dollars per minute.
Does that include the interest we owe China?
FWIW: The giant New York City Debt Clock doesn't have enough digit spaces. A new one is due sometime in 2009, and will allow display of a quadrillion dollars. A quadrillion is 1,000,000,000,000,000. I'm not going there. You do the math.
It only takes a few yards of rope to hang someone. Let's see: multiply that by how many we need to hang. Hummm . . .
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Yesterday I moved a pile of duds going to the laundromat, thinking I'd start the New Year all fresh and clean. Out crawled a guy that looked like what, as a kid, I called a stink bug.
I try not to squash any living thing that's not harmful. Since it didn't stink on me, I dumped it into an open top trash can.
Tonight as I was writing this Article with my thrift shop Banker's green lamp turned on beside my computer, I spotted some movement out of the corner of my eye. There was my little stink bug, smaller than my fingernail, having flown in, or crawled, from two rooms away.
It flew awkwardly up toward the light bulb and explored the white inside of the glass shade. Must have been like basking on a beach in the Sun. Pretty soon it disappeared. Then it came crawling around from the backside of my Mac computer. For the remainder of this Article, he/she explored the surfaces of my computer at a slow, plodding pace, elevated on six thin, spindly legs, all except the screen, which she/he avoided like the light bulb. Smart little guy, with a pin point brain.
He/she became my little silent companion, checking out all the multi-colored sticky notes on my computer, pausing occasionally as if reading one, which is absurd, I know, though that's what it looked like. Appearances can be deceiving to the human mind. But it's nice to have a "friend" who can walk around the rim of a thin coffee cup without falling in.
Actually, I much prefer my stink bug to any of the NeoCONS who saddled everyone in our Nation with more debt than we could pay off in two lifetimes. Think I'll keep my little friend around as a reminder of my adventures into higher numbers. Wonder what she/he likes to eat? I discovered it's not potato chips.
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For 17 years Gene Messick studied and taught Design at NC State University and Cornell. Co-founding the Visual Design Program at NCSU, he established the Photography Program at Cornell, where he taught in the Architecture Department, most interested (more...)

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