Tuesday, May 19, 2009


How much is a trillion? Watching old episodes of COSMOS, it is easy to recall Carl Sagan marvelling at “billions and billions.” Soon Americans will face a proposed annual deficit of 1.8 TRILLION dollars. This is a big, big number--so far removed from our experience that few can conceive of it. Such numbers are beyond astronomical, for previously only physicists or astronomers had to use them. Perhaps someone thinks that voters are not intelligent enough to grasp 1.8 trillion. It is science’s duty to explain the meaning of trillions.


One trillion is 10 raised to the twelfth power, 10^12, 1 followed by 12 zeroes or 1,000,000,000,000. A million, million dollars are very difficult to put into perspective. A million dollar bills laid end to end would form a row 156 kilometres long. To make a trillion, each dollar in that row would be the base of a million-strong column. Each of those columns would reach 65 kilometres. A trillion dollar bills would cover an area of 10,000 square kilometers, large as the States of Hawaii or Massachusetts.

Such a pile of money would truly touch the sky. The paper that makes up dollar bills is 0.01 cm thick. If a trillion dollars were stacked one atop another, they would reach to 100,000 kilometres, more than 1/4 the distance to the Moon. Just stacking those dollars would create a Space Elevator and ensure perpetual access to Space. A trillion dollars would build a city-sized settlement on the Moon or a constellation of solar power satellites. Would the taxpayer get as much for a 1.8 trillion-dollar deficit?

Possibly the only way to envision astronomical numbers is through astronomy. Our Milky Way galaxy contains about 250 billion stars. The number of galaxies in the Universe is also in the hundreds of billions. The years 2000-2008 contained the highest US deficits in history. The highest of these deficits was 450 billion, roughly equal to the number of stars in a galaxy. The projected 2009 deficit is double the record, over 900 billion. The proposed deficit of 1.8 trillion is double 2009’s deficit, 7 times the number of stars in our galaxy! Humans on our tiny dot have barely the vision to conceive of such numbers, much less borrow them.

The proposed deficit is 6000 dollars for every woman, man and child in the US. Only 100 million Americans actually pay federal tax, so each would incur 18,000 dollars of additional debt in a single year. This would add to the 11 trillion dollars of existing US national debt; over 100,000 dollars for each taxpayer. In addition to his or her personal debt, each taxpayer already owes enough for a 4-year college degree, a light plane or a very nice car.

The deficit cannot be blamed on one political party. It grew during 2000-2008 and doubled in 2009, when one party was in power. One reason for the spike was the 700 billion dollar TARP bank “bailout,” signed by the same party’s President. The 787 billion-dollar “stimulus” package was pushed by the other party’s President. Many more billions were spent on "bailouts" for well-connected companies "too big to fail." (see below) These vast sums spent by both parties did not prevent the US from sliding into recession or stop today's unemployment from growing.


The downside of a deficit is inflation. If a government prints money excessively, it erodes the value of a currency and causes prices to rise. In extreme cases, like 1930’s Germany or Zimbabwe today, a currency can become virtually worthless. The last period of US inflation was in the 1970’s, beyond the memory of many voters. If deficits continue to grow, they may learn the meaning of inflation.

In the late 1970’s, when high prices were on everyone’s mind, physicist Alan Guth and others came up with the inflationary paradigm. According to this idea the early Universe inflated at warp speed, many times faster than light. Inflation had the convenient property of being untestable. No experiment could time-travel to the first 10^(-33) seconds of the Universe, or approach the titanic energies near the Big Bang.

Inflation would violate both the First Law of Thermodynamics (conservation of energy) and Relativity’s stipulation that nothing travels faster than light. The various inflationary theories rely on “inflatons,” scalar fields and other entities that have never been seen in Nature. Despite its lack of success the inflationary paradigm persists, crowding out more promising ideas like a changing speed of light.


This explanation of trillions may be a voice crying out in the wilderness. Few will likely read it; or it will be crowded out by noise in the media. Like inflation, a faulty idea can gain momentum of its own, drawing attention from a changing speed of light. A government will try to pass a 1.8 trillion-dollar deficit over a public which cannot conceive of such a number. The deficit, and the 11 trillion dollar national debt, will be passed on to our generation.

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Anonymous gus said...

Well, you know there was a big surplus during the Clinton years and a big deficit at the end of the Bush years. I'm comfortable apportioning blame.

12:20 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

The question in a few years, when the bill comes due will be...how do we avoid paying (i.e. welsh out). Just watch -- the 1.8 trillion added to the national debt will never be repaid.

11:38 AM  
Anonymous Tony Smith said...

Thanks for writing about trillions of USA$.
Glenn Beck did a TV show about a trillion USA$,
in terms of $100 Dollar Bills,
saying (I paraphrase a bit):
"... $1 million ... would fit in a suitcase
... $1 billion ... is about the size of a car
... $1 trillion ... is about the size of 1,000 cars in a big parking lot ...".

Screenshots from his visuals are on my web page at

However, what is REALLY disturbing is the fact that
the total amount of possibly worthless hedge-fundie derivatives is on the order of $500 trillion,
is about $5 million for EVERY FAMILY in the USA
also about $100,000 for EVERY HUMAN BEING ON EARTH.

Since the problem may be growing (due to "quantitative easing", the euphemism for printing money by the USA/UK financial system)
the problem that the USA/UK global financial system must eventually face is on the order
of $1 QUADRILLION USA Dollars.

In Glenn Beck's terms you might say:
... $1 quadrillion ... is about the size of
1,000 sets of
1,000 cars in a big parking lot
stacked on top of each other,
a big pile of cars a mile high
(figuring each layer of cars to be a bit over 5 feet high for a total height of a bit over 5,000 feet).

Tony Smith

12:14 PM  

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