Gallery H
Big Numbers
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Can You Fathom Eleven Trillion Dollars?


By James Donahue


When I was growing up in the mid-Twentieth Century our jaws dropped at the concept of one person accumulating wealth of a million dollars.


No one ever talked about “billionaires” although the word billion was known to us purely because of our mathematics training. If you kept adding zeros behind the number, the name changed every time you added another comma.


I recall joking around with numbers higher than a billion that reached a trillion, and then we got to things like “zillion,” “gazillion” or “a hundred billion trillion” to describe our concept of infinity. We never thought then that we would actually see such names of number combinations in the news.


To get some concept of this number we turn to a copyright story by Jim Loy which presents the following images:

Here are 100 vertical lines: |||||||||| |||||||||| |||||||||| |||||||||| |||||||||| |||||||||| |||||||||| |||||||||| |||||||||| ||||||||||

Here are 1000:

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Loy then posts 10,000 vertical lines that appear as if they would fill a full eight by ten-inch sheet of white copy paper. At that rate, he said a million lines would fill 100 pages, or comprise a small book. A billion, or 1,000 million, would require 1000 small books of 100 pages each.

As a former book publisher, I can say that a thousand bound books of 100 pages each would probably make a stack tall enough to reach the top of a room in an older building with eight foot high ceilings. To get enough books to post a trillion vertical lines, we would need a million such books.

It would take a decent sized warehouse to store that many books. Loy notes that “dollars are bigger than my vertical lines. My mind has to struggle with the vast size of a trillion.”

Loy offers yet another way to consider the size of a trillion. This is by counting aloud. If a second is spent pronouncing each number than it would take about 24 hours to count to 86,400. At first a second would be more than enough time to pronounce the number. But later, after you get in the hundreds of thousands, the time needed to pronounce each number would be longer. Yet if each number could be said within a second, Loy calculates: “I can count to a million in less than half a month. It will take me more than 30 years to count to a (billion,) and more than 30,000 years to count to (a trillion.)”

With this thought in mind, consider that our national government, which once lacked the power to levy a tax on the people, now runs a monthly budget deficit of over $119 billion and was authorized by the Senate this year to increase the national debt limit to $12.1 trillion. This debt currently runs at $11.8 trillion and the Treasury Department is already predicting that Congress will be asked to raise this cap yet again before the year is up.

That is just the national DEBT limit. In other words, it is like running a credit card that far in the hole, with interest to be paid, over and above the money appropriated from annual revenues for running our government.

It is estimated that one dollar out of every four dollars paid in income tax goes to cover the interest on this debt.

We have another two years to go before taking another census count, but it is estimated that there are about 306,961,643 people now living in the United States. This means that every man, woman and child in the nation shares a personal part of this debt of well over $38,500. And this debt is increasing by an average of $3.89 billion per day.

What is scary is that the national debt has increased by over six trillion dollars, from about $5.7 trillion, since Mr. Bush took office in 2001.