Our number system has hundreds, thousands, millions, billions, trillions, and then the seldom used quadrillions, sextillions, septillions, octillions, nonillions, decillions, reverting to ever-increasing exponents to infinity and beyond. (No, zillions and gazillions are not actual numbers.)
All we have to do to make bigger numbers is add more zeroes.
But do you realize the magnitude of what those zeroes mean? I didn’t, until I looked up the difference between the American and the traditional British understanding of “billion.” (For that, see this. The Brits have changed their usage and now agree with the American terminology for big numbers.)
A million is a thousand thousands. A billion is a thousand million. That’s a big number. A trillion is a thousand billion. That’s a really big number.
But to get our minds around such quantities, we can express them in terms of each other. A trillion is a million million!
We can write the number as 1,000,000,000,000, or ten to the twelfth power. But that is a mind-bogglingly big number!
According to the Forbes’ list of the world’s billionaires, the richest person in the world, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, has $177 billion. That’s not anywhere near a trillion dollars. In all, the 2,755 billionaires listed by Forbes have $13.1 trillion, so that’s an overwhelming amount of wealth. As of this date, the Gross National Product of the United States, the sum of all economic activity in the nation, is just under $23 trillion. The federal budget is just over $6 trillion, which is $1.873 trillion more than it will take in. Our national debt is nearly $29 trillion. That’s lots of money and lots of red ink.
President Biden has proposed two infrastructure bills, with the one addressing roads, bridges, and other physical infrastructure costing $1.2 trillion and the one addressing the “social infrastructure” costing $3.5 trillion. That would come to almost $5 trillion; that is 5,000 billion, or 5 ,000,000 million.
I wonder if most Americans realize just how big these numbers are that we are throwing around.
One proposed solution to the difficulty of getting our divided Congress to pass an increase in the debt ceiling, as required by law, lest the nation default on its debt–a dilemma recently kicked down the road until December–is to make a single coin worth $1 trillion. According to the law, the U.S. Treasure can mint platinum coins–they have to be platinum–in any denomination. A trillion-dollar coin could be minted, then simply deposited in the U.S. government account, which would cover our immediate obligations and prevent a default.
The person who thought of this bright idea was a commenter on a blog. That should be an encouragement to you commenters here on the Cranach blog.
If the trillion dollar coin–presumably with Joe Biden’s picture on it–gets made, I would worry that it might get lost in the sofa cushions before it could be deposited. Or that the staffer assigned to take it to the bank would, whether from absent-mindedness or as an act of rebellion or mercy, might drop it in the hat of one of Washington, D.C.’s homeless panhandlers.
If that happened, I assume that it would belong to the homeless panhandler, just like the quarters that he usually gets. And, with over five times the wealth of Jeff Bezos, he would immediately become, by far, the richest person in the world.
UPDATE: From Pete in the comments: “Here’s how I keep these big numbers in perspective: One million seconds is 11 days. One billion seconds is 31 years. One trillion seconds is 31,709 years.”