Wednesday, August 14, 2013

How big is a billion?

The human mind cannot grasp the size of the numbers represented by terms like "million", or "billion" or "trillion".  And this is one of the many reasons why reports about the federal government's 15 trillion dollar deficit or 200 trillion dollar unfunded liability often roll off peoples backs like water off a duck.  The numbers are so large that, to the average person, they really don't mean anything.

So, occasionally, in class, as a means to try and give students some sense of the massiveness of our financial debts, I'll ask them the rhetorical question, "How long would it take you to count to a billion?"  The answer is easy to calculate, of course.  But I present it like this: "If you counted one number per second, such that counting to 18, for example, takes 18 seconds, and you did this non-stop, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year -- never sleeping and never not counting -- it would take you just under 32 years to get to 1 billion".  And that's just one billion!!! In the scheme of things, American economy-wise, a billion is small change.  So, how about a trillion? Well, there's
1000 billion in a trillion, so 1000 x 32 years gives us just under 32, 000 years to count to a trillion!

The exercise isn't perfect, of course, but it does wake my students up a bit, which is ultimately the goal.  So why am I droning on about this?  Because I'm trying to create some background for you when you click here and read this short, scary, necessary post from Not PC.  Here's a slice to entice you:

One quadrillion dollars. More than seven-million yen per taxpayer.  One-thousand trillion yen in total, owed to Japanese’s aging savers.Here it is in zeroes:1,000,000,000,000,000.And here’s the really sad thing: After twenty-three years of their government trying to fix their 1990 depression by borrowing and overspending , they’re still in it. And the debt they’ve amassed in trying to fix it has just passed the fifteen-zero barrier, and it’s accelerating.But here’s what’s really, really sad: virtually every government in the west is trying to emulate them. [Emphasis Marc Street]