How much is a million, billion, trillion?

Wise Young PhD MD

The W. M. Keck Center for Collaborative Neuroscience

Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, Piscataway, NJ 08854-8087

We often speak casually of millions, billions, or even trillions. We are accustomed to thinking of cities with millions of inhabitants, government agency budgets that add up to billions, and even the United States debt that that is now close to $9 trillion (Source). Most people don't appreciate these numbers.

Let's start with a million.

• A million minutes is nearly two years (1 year, 329 days, 10 hours and 40 minutes). Put in another way, it will take you nearly two years to spend a million dollars if you paid a dollar a minute.

• A book called "How much is a million?" tried to explain the concept of a million to children, pointing out that it would take a person 23 days of non-stop counting to count a million anything, including dollars (Source).

• If you walked a million steps, you can walk to Boston from New York (approximately 200 miles), assuming that each of your steps is a bit longer than a foot (a million feet is 189 miles).

• Since each dollar bill weighs about a gram and each pound has about 454 grams, a million dollars in one dollar bills weighs about 2202.6 pounds (Source). In 20 dollar bills, a million dollars would still weigh 110 pounds. In 100 dollar bills, it would weigh 22.0 pounds.

• A stack of 1000 bills is about a foot tall. Therefore, a million dollar stacked on top of each other would be 1000 feet tall. The Empire State Building is 1250 feet tall. A dollar bill is about 6 inches by 2.5 inches (15.7 cm by 6.6 cm) or about 0.10 square foot. So one cubic feet of $1 bills has about $10,000. A million dollars would take up about 100 cubic feet.

A billion is of course 1000 million. You can multiply every thing above by 1000 but using $100 bills is a bit more practical.

• A billion minutes ago is about the time of the birth of Christ.

• A billion steps is more than 200,000 miles. The circumference of the earth is only 25,000 miles. Therefore, one can walk around the earth at least 9 times and possibly 10 times.

• A billion dollars in $100 bills would weigh 22,000 pounds, over 1,100 cubic feet of bills.

• A stack of $100 bills for a billion dollars would be 10,000 feet tall, taller than the tallest building in the United States and taller than any mountain east of the Rockies, including Mt. Washington (6288 ft, the tallest mountain in Northeast United States).

• It would take 230 days to count the 10 million $100 bills. That is to count $1 billion.

• On September 7, 2003, President Bush asked Congress to grant an additional $87 billion to continue the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The $87 billion would cover a whole football field with $100 bills to the depth of 6 inches. By September 2007, the United States will have spent $315 billion on the war (Source). The Senate is working on adding another $50 billion. The $365 billion would fill a football field to a depth of 2 feet with $100 bills.

• Filling a football field with $100 bills may seem sort of silly but it is not far from what the Bush Administration did. During Paul Bremer's tenure as administrator of Iraq, the United States shipped bales of cash to Iraq. The total amount cash sent was over $12 billion, requiring a football field size warehouse to store the cash. A special inspector general for the Iraqi reconstruction said that $8.8 billion is unaccounted for after being given to the Iraqi ministries. But more interesting, illustrating the physical dimensions of the cash shipped, $4 billion of the cash is missing, some 363 tons of it (Source).

A trillion is an mind-boggling number, well beyond the capability of most of us to imagine. The following will illustrate.

• A trillion minutes ago is 31,688 years ago, close to the beginning of human history (Source. In other words, if you spent a dollar per minute, you could barely spend a trillion dollars during all of known human history. Even if you spent $100 per minute, you would not be able to spend $1 trillion in 300 years, virtually the entire history of the United States.

• Packed in bales of $100 bills (each weighing a gram), a trillion dollars would be 10 billion $100 bills, or about 10 million kilograms, 22 million pounds, or over 10,000 tons of cash (at 2000 pounds per ton). A trillion dollars in $100 bills would occupy a million cubic feet of space. It would fill a football field 6 feet deep. Before the end of 2008, the United States is likely to have spent over a trillion dollars on Iraq.

• The United States now has a national deficit that will surpass $9 trillion by the end of 2007 and probably $10 trillion by the time President George W. Bush leaves office in 2008 if he is not impeached. Over a third of this deficit was added by the Bush Administration since 2001. In other words, the Bush Administration has spent more than 3 trillion dollars over the amount of taxes that it has collected in the past 6 years. This debt is being placed on the shoulders of our children.

You know, a billion here and a billion there, all of a sudden we are talking about real money, money that is too much to count, too much to weigh, and too much to imagine.

Wise.