How Much is a Trillion?

We’ve all seen attempts, like this, to make huge numbers more real with graphic representations.  Like eternity, some things just exceed our capacity to imagine. This may be why we don’t really feel the weight of 6 million Jewish deaths or 10 million or was it 20 million deaths attributed to Stalin and at least that many to Mao. Big numbers.  Ten thousand makes a bigger impact that ten million, not because it is bigger, obviously, but because we can understand and feel it.

I tried to explain to a Kenyan friend that America was (at that time) 10 trillion dollars in debt.  Citizens of developing nations are used to feeling stigmatized by being in hock to the World Bank. Those debts often run into the billions.  It was impossible for her to imagine that her dream destination — the US –was really in trouble financially.  All she knew was that life on the ground in America was infinitely more pleasant than her life in Kenya.  That’s all that mattered.  Trillions in debt was meaningless. (Of course, I know everything is relative–national debt to GDP ratios and all that.)

But what is a trillion?  It helps me to think of it as a million million, that’s 12 zeros.  So if you had a trillion dollars, you could give a million dollars to a million people.  If you had six trillion dollars, well…. you know.  And what if tomorrow you suddenly had four more trillion?  And next month another two?

But it’s not just the largeness of the numbers, it’s the fact that there seems to be a limitless supply.  Somehow another trillion, or four, is always there when we need it. And when it is spoken into existence at a press conference the stock market and our retirement funds jump back to where they are supposed to be.

Where does this money come from?  If there is a limitless supply–and it surely seems there is– then the real question is why is our government being so stingy?  And what are they waiting for?  Why not pay off everyone’s loans–all of them, not just school loans, but credit cards, and mortgages?  Why not provide a minimum income for everyone, and free health care?  You can’t blame people who think this way.  They see how it works.  It just isn’t working for them.

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