What Exactly Is A Trillion?
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
In the NFL draft, everyone wants to be number one, of course. Now a story about a really big number. Until recently, you rarely heard anyone talking about a trillion dollars. These days, we hear it tossed around all the time. Just this week, the International Monetary Fund estimated that U.S. financial firms will eventually write down $2.7 trillion in assets.
That prompted our Planet Money team to put these gargantuan numbers in context. Chana Joffe-Walt asked her colleague David Kestenbaum to see how many minutes it takes to count a really big pile of money.
CHANA JOFFE-WALT: David, you got the cash?
DAVID KESTENBAUM: I got a big stack of ones. Do you have the stopwatch?
JOFFE-WALT: Yeah. Okay. Ready? Go.
KESTENBAUM: One dollar, two, three, four, five…
JOFFE-WALT: All right. You keep counting, David. I'm going to come back to you. Twenty-nine years…
KESTENBAUM: …ten, eleven…
JOFFE-WALT: David, could you count a little quieter? Thanks.
JOFFE-WALT: Twenty-nine years - every school year, Bob Peterson, he sees the same thing. Peterson is a teacher. He teaches fifth-grade math in Milwaukee. And every year, about two months into the school year, he puts a number up on the board.
Mr. BOB PETERSON (Teacher): I might write the numerals one billion, which is, of course, a one followed by nine zeroes. And I ask what that means. And they'll say, Oh, it's a zillion. Or that's a million. They'll be waving their hands and some will be calling out: That's the lottery, you can win the lottery with - you know, I mean, that's - they become animated in terms of thinking about what these numbers mean.
JOFFE-WALT: But always, and quickly, Mr. Peterson realizes they actually have no idea what that number means. They can name it, write it, but they don't actually get it, and that is when Mr. Peterson takes out his wallet.
Mr. PETERSON: So I take out my cash, take out a stack of one-dollar bills, and I have 25 or 30 kids staring right at me immediately as I start counting out my - one, two, three - and one dollar bill each second I place down.
JOFFE-WALT: David, David, you're doing what Mr. Peterson said, right? One dollar a second?
KESTENBAUM: Hey, you're screwing me up here.
(Soundbite of laughter)
JOFFE-WALT: We're counting on you, David. Okay, let's go back to Mr. Peterson's classroom.
Mr. PETERSON: Eventually, I say I've just counted $60 in 60 seconds. How much is that in a minute? Just making sure they know 60 seconds is in a minute. Okay, that's 60 in a minute. But how long would it take for us to count up to this number, a million? I ask, and then the kids guess. Two hours, three days. And the responses vary. And working in small groups, I have them try to figure that out. Eventually, a number of groups come up with the answer, which is about 11 days and .7, depending how you figure out the hours and stuff, and that really blows the kids away. Wow, takes that long.
But then comes the big one, which I put up a billion. How long would it take us to count to that? Kids are arguing and talking about place value and multiplication and all sorts of things that teachers like to hear, and pretty soon we find out to get to a billion it would take, counting us - 33 years, and they're amazed at that. Wow, my dad isn't even that old, they say, you know.
JOFFE-WALT: My dad is that old. He's more in the two-billion second range. But I know how those kids feel. We simply are not wired to work with numbers so large. You can look at three apples and know that's three. I have two sisters. But with millions and billions it helps to have a comparison, like time. So a million seconds ago, 11 days - I can still remember 11 days ago what I ate, who I talked to. Even a billion seconds ago - 1977 - I mean, I wasn't alive, but I hear you all really liked Abba.
(Soundbite of song, "Dancing Queen")
JOFFE-WALT: One trillion seconds ago is like it's really hard to fit into your brain. More than 32,000 years. Neanderthals were going extinct. People were making their very first cave drawings with blade-based tools, give or take a couple thousand years. So last week to Abba, to cave drawings.
All right, let's get to some of these bailout numbers. Those AIG bonuses - 165 million. One dollar a second puts us back five years, which is not that impressive, really, when you're talking big bank bailouts. The bailout of a single bank - say, Bank Of America: 45 billion.
That's more than 1,400 years ago, just after the fall of the Roman Empire. Of course, Roman Empire - now, that's nothing, really, when you think Fed injection scale - $1.2 trillion to buy up Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities puts us back 39,000 years.
KESTENBAUM: …205, 206, 207, 208…
JOFFE-WALT: David, how close are you to 1.2 trillion?
KESTENBAUM: …211, 212. I'm at 212, Chana. Not at a trillion yet. But I'm going.
JOFFE-WALT: Hundreds. What kind of a bailout is 212?
KESTENBAUM: We could bail out the lemonade stand or something on my corner.
JOFFE-WALT: Right. Enough seconds on this. I'm Chana Joffe-Walt.
KESTENBAUM: And I'm David Kestenbaum.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.