Understanding The Federal Budget: What Is A Billion?
How much is a billion? What does it mean to say that something costs a billion dollars ($1B)?
Politicians — at the state and federal level — talk in numbers that most folks can’t visualize, whether we’re talking budgets or campaign spending.
First, we have to clarify that we’re using the US system of numbers, not the British system (short scale v long scale). If we’re talking about things relating to the US political system, we are using the US system. Here’s the math:
The chart, however accurate, doesn’t put the number “a billion” — one thousand million — into perspective.
Most of us know that the numbers are big, we just don’t know how to think of them in the context of our own lives. Here are some attempts, collected from around the Net:
- If we wanted to pay down a billion dollars of the US debt, paying one dollar a second, it would take 31 years, 259 days, 1 hour, 46 minutes, and 40 seconds. To pay off a trillion dollars of debt, at a dollar a second, would take about 32,000 years. The current U.S. federal debt is $18.1 trillion.
- About a billion minutes ago, the Roman Empire was in full swing. (One billion minutes is about 1,900 years.)
- About a billion hours ago, we were living in the Stone Age. (One billion hours is about 114,000 years.)
- About a billion months ago, dinosaurs walked the earth. (One billion months is about 82 million years.)
- A billion inches is 15,783 miles, more than halfway around the earth (circumference).
- A billion pennies, stacked one atop the other, would reach nearly 1,000 miles. The Space Shuttle orbits about 225 miles
above the Earth’s surface.
- A person counting at the rate of two numbers per second would need 5 years, 308 days, 9 hours, 41 minutes, 50 seconds to reach a billion.
- The earth is about 8,000 miles wide (diameter), and the sun is about 800,000 miles wide, not quite a million.
Remember that a trillion is one thousand billion — and today’s federal budget numbers are in trillions.
For a really mind-blowingly large number, think about the googol, which is 1 followed by 100 zeros (10100). To try to wrap your mind around that, envision a diamond that weighs as much as the earth. It would contain only 1050 carbon atoms.
I originally wrote this article for About.com in 2004.