One terabuck, visualized

Barry sez, "One of the most difficult things you encounter when discussing the bailouts is getting people to understand concepts of enormity that are literally beyond comprehension. 'Trillion' is one of those concepts. This visualization (by Jess Bachman, who does the fabulous Death and Taxes poster), goes along way to making the number more understandable. "

Visualizing One Trillion Dollars (Thanks, Barry!)


  1. I truly love these ecomonic videos. The visual impact is good, they’re simple and too the point, and best of all they look like someone put some effort into the visuals.

    (are these the same folks who did the ‘crisis of credit’ stuff posted here a few months back?)

  2. I’ve found it useful during a discussion with someone unable to grasp the concept of billions vs trillions to ask them to guess how long a million seconds is (about 11 days) then I ask them how long they think a billion seconds is (almost 32 years) then I ask how long they think a trillion seconds is (almost 32,000 years)

    It seems to be the most effective way to explain the magnitude of difference to someone compared to, say, a stack of one dollar bills to the moon or any of the other common metaphors. IMO

  3. Back when the Iraq war was brewing, some comedian (Dave Barry, maybe?) said that he could think of better things to do with $100B, such as carpeting the entire state of New Mexico. As it happens, carpet is somewhat more expensive than that… even cheap carpet usually costs at least $1.00 per square yard, and New Mexico has an area of 377B square yards. But now you could do a decent job of it… maybe toss in Texas as well.

  4. I was doing OK until the end. When I finally got my head around what a Trillion is they sprung that “10 times as much” line and that tender string of thought was ripped from my mind.

    It’s just TOO BIG!

  5. Thanks for posting this! It actually expresses a trillion dollars in terms of what it can buy, rather than resorting to analogies that are just as mind-boggling as the original number. People can’t visualize 32,000 years or a stack of dollar bills 67,866 miles high.

    The one I find punches through the fog is, “$3,000 for every man, woman, and child in America.” Everybody can tell you what they’d do with $3,000, or how painful it would be to pay off that much debt. And remember, that’s per person. Married with two kids? Congratulations, here’s a credit card with a balance of $12,000 for your household to pay off. And yes, we are borrowing it, so interest is accruing. Get on that.

    $10 trillion? You just got a second mortgage you didn’t ask for.

    Clearly, this is not something we can pay. It’s not just unsustainable – that word implies that we’ll run into limits at some point in the future – we can’t pay it now. The inescapable conclusion is that we’ll just have to default. Nations don’t generally default suddenly and completely, they just devalue their debt by devaluing their currency. With hard work and WWII-style austerity measures, we might actually be able to pay off a $3,000/head debt. To pay off a debt 10x that large, we’ll have to devalue the currency by a factor of 10. Make $120k/family in the future the equivalent of “only” $12k/family today.

    Great for people paying the debt, not so great for anyone holding the debt. Don’t be that guy. Don’t make long-term loans in dollars. Particularly to the government. The dollars you get paid back won’t be worth nearly as much as the ones you loaned out.

  6. There are 10^11 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it’s only a hundred billion. It’s less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers.

    — Richard Feynman

  7. Now if you’ll kindly link us to a neat informative video that explains how to fix the global economic crisis without spending that much money.

    Some people gots some ‘reality of the situation’ problems.

  8. Cool, so is now pushing another angle: visualization.

    I’m still staying away from them as there’s been no indication that my previous complaints about their business model ( ) has changed.

    Nothing against Jess Bachman, but the video seems tied back to, so I can’t help but think they’d push it in the name of upping their brand.

    My apologies if this has nothing to do with but an unfortunate association via the youtube video title.

  9. the slick look of this means nothing if they don’t hold the damn words on screen long enough to be read without having to pause. fail.

  10. As a non-American, when I found out a few years ago that the US defence budget was ONE TRILLION DOLLARS I remember thinking that there is such a thing as aggressive defence. Then I found out that the US is responsible for over 50% of defence spending *in the world* and I thought – ooh, you could have healthcare for everyone in America, all free, all the time for everyone for that amount of money.

    Of course, your rulers would have to accept that they couldn’t just push other countries around, and they might have to just *talk* to them…but you wouldn’t have to pay any extra taxes!

  11. No offense @transit, but your “previous complaints” about Mint don’t make much sense, considering that Mint doesn’t even have access to your bank passwords. They do have access to some of your personal information (through their third party password service Yodleee), but who cares? Privacy nuts freak out when companies take your information in an unsolicited and involuntary way, not when a company you voluntarily deal with to help manage your financial data has access to your financial data. Do you get upset when your bank has access to your account balance information?

    Enormity: “an outrageous, improper, vicious, or immoral act”


  12. A trillion dollars can fund “all American military action since 9/11”, according to the video. Where did they get this figure?

    Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes estimated that the invasion and occupation of Iraq up to roughly early 2008 cost the US $3 trillion and, in the words of who interviewed Stiglitz and Bilmes on February 29, 2008, “the Bush administration has repeatedly low-balled the cost of the war—and even kept a second set of records hidden from the American public”.

  13. Wall Street has made money a fiction of the highest order — I’m not talking about equally disingenuous but lesser amounts like ‘gold standard’, but about the meaning of money and debt.

    Who does the American government (taxpayer) owe and how much? Or any other country for that matter?

    If all the debts were called in a single day, what would everybody owe? Would a few banks get a quintillion euros?

    I personally feel that much international debt would cancel out, except that negotiating bankers would get their cut for being in the room. For them, nothing else matters. We are all their puppets.

  14. I think its so wonderful we hear all this talk of fiscal responsibility– now. i mean, before, when republicans were spending the trillions, on unnecessary wars, on giving money to the wealthiest 1% in tax cuts, on unbalanced spend-and-spend (not even tax-and-spend) budgets, the teabaggers didn’t seem to mind a bit. that, apparently, was “good” guvmint.

  15. The best way, IMHO, to visualize what it means to say that the US government plans to spend $1 trillion on something is to divide by the number of people. There are about 304 million Americans. $1 trillion is $3290 per American. That’s not a hard number to visualize, and this is a more realistic way of thinking about these sums than constructing a visualization of a trillion objects.

    Likewise, a billion dollars is $3 per person, and a million dollars is 0.3 cents per person.

  16. How timely. This very morning, my 8-year-old and I had NPR on the background over breakfast, and the announcer mentioned 1 trillion dollars in connection with health care reform. My son asked, “is there really a trillion dollars?”

    I agree with Joe. Per capita basis makes things easier to understand, and even when you use aggregate numbers, it’s helpful to give examples of things that have specific costs. Food Stamp (SNAP) program is 37 billion dollars per year, military budget is 500 billion dollars per year, gross national product is 14,000 billion dollars per year. If you can understand 37, 500, and 14,000, you can understand the relative scale of these amounts.

  17. @YESNO: Are you aware that the entry for enormity at the link you posted shows that there are several meanings for the word, and even makes a disparaging reference to the people that incorrectly claim it has only one meaning?
    Since my curiosity was roused by your comment, I looked up its etymology as well. Guess what the word it descended from meant? (Hint: it doesn’t support your assertion)

  18. So let me get this straight. You can buy the houses that caused all this trouble for 1 trillion (short scale). Where did the rest of the 9 trillion come from?

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