WHAT’S A BILLION REALLY WORTH?
Adapted from Where Does the Money Go? Your Guided Tour to the Federal Budget Crisis
by Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson, of Public Agenda
The trouble with big numbers (and almost all the numbers thrown around about the federal budget and national debt are big) is that they’re hard to visualize. The $60 you take out of the ATM on Monday morning is crisp and tangible. You know what it takes to get through the week and you know whether you’re going to have to stop at the bank again before Friday.
A billion is just a number. There’s no billion-dollar bill (although it’s fun to speculate which president would be on it) A trillion is even worse. These are important ways of keeping score, but really difficult to grasp. And when you start talking about big numbers you ought to know how much they really mean in practice – as Dr. Evil found out as he tried to look threatening when he made his demand for “one million dollars .”
But the best way of dealing with intangibles is to make them concrete. There’s a Barenaked Ladies song called “If I Had a Million Dollars .” Like most folk songs, it’s been (a) co-opted for a TV commercial and (b) can be difficult to get out of your head if you’re not careful. But if you had a billion dollars and an inclination to play Santa, you could:
Big ticket items, of course, cost more, and you get less for your money. A billion will only get you:
But what about trillions? They’re really mind-boggling. To figure that out, just add three more zeros to any of the numbers above.
Or instead of only four Boeing 777s, you could get close to 4,000, enough to replace the fleets of four or five major airlines (for example, American Airlines and its American Eagle subsidiary have about 890 planes).
But let’s make it as down-to-earth as possible. There are about 300 million people in the United States, more or less. And let’s say you wanted to do something for every one of them. With $1 billion, split evenly, you’d have a little more than $3.33 to spend on each one.
With $1 trillion, you could spend $3,333.33 apiece.