A Million Here, A Billion There…

Billion dollar bill.

I hope I’m the only one who didn’t know about Planet Money.  I was enlightened earlier this week by a podcast savvy labmate, and after listening to last Wednesday’s episode, spent a good part of the afternoon asking people if they knew how long it would take to count to a billion.  (Don’t worry, I’ll tell you soon.)

Let me back up.

In last Wednesday’s episode, Chana Joffe-Walt and Adam Davidson talked about numbers.  Specifically, they focused on the astronomic numbers we’ve been hearing in the news lately: the bailout, the stimulus, how much we owe China, etc.  When the cost of things is measured in numbers that end in –illion, you know they’re going to be expensive.

Now, I know we all toss around the B-word and the T-word like it’s no big deal, but until I listened to this podcast, I had no idea how gigantic these numbers actually are.  Ok, maybe not no idea: I understand that a billion is thousand million, and a trillion is a thousand billion.  I get it.  Those numbers are big.  But, since they’re almost exclusively used to describe vast amounts of money, and most of us won’t see that kind of cash in a few lifetimes, they can be a little hard for the average non-Timothy Geithner to comprehend.

This is why I was so charmed by the fun little numbers exercise that Adam and Chana went through last week (is it obvious that my mother is a math teacher?).  Here’s their trick for grasping the tremendous difference between  a few orders of magnitude : think of dollars as seconds.  For example, if you had a wad of dollar bills, and took a second to count each dollar, it would take you a minute to count out 60 bucks.  You know where this is going…. If you had a million dollars, and wanted to spend your time counting it (which is sort of understandable), how long do you think it would take you?

Answer: 11 days of non-stop counting.  That’s a pretty long time, right?  Ok, now here’s where it gets mind-boggling.  How long would it take you to count a billion dollars?   According to Chana and Adam:  32 years.  Yes, years.   A billion is a lot bigger than a million.  So, next time you hear some politician haggling about a few million in a multi-billion dollar budget, keep it in perspective.   If we think about it in terms of time, that’s only 11 days out of my husband’s entire life.  About a week and a half.  Or, that one time he got the flu during finals.  In other words, it’s not a very big part of his life.

And, just for fun: how long would it take to count a trillion dollar bills?  Answer: 32.5 thousand years.  Yikes!

Normal people get excited by stuff like this too, right?
Check out the Planet Money podcast here


~ by Meghan on April 19, 2009.

3 Responses to “A Million Here, A Billion There…”

  1. Cool!

  2. While your example interesting, the size of the number one trillion doesn’t boggle my mind. Your example seems to make the assumption that the sole possessor of this large sum of money is a single entity. The US government is arguably a single entity, but it represents an entire population and the population is what finances it. The CIA estimates that the US population will reach 307,212,123 people in July this year. Lets say that 230 million of those people (~75% of the population) take a small side job that pays $10/hour. With one hour of work, the employed population makes 2.3 billion dollars (for 230 million hours of work). Wow, suddenly one billion doesn’t seem like much at all anymore. Lets say that the employed population continues to work the $10/hour job for one hour a week. How long would it take to reach a trillion? About 8.36 years. Quite a period of time, but at one extra hour of work a week its not too bad. If everyone worked the job for 40 hours a week we’d reach one trillion in 10.87 weeks.

    There are all sorts of ways to look at large numbers to make them seem astronomical or to make them look like a dip in the pond. Again, you have to keep in perspective the number of persons that “possess” these large sums of money and not think of it as if it belonged to a single individual. Regardless, wasteful and unnecessary spending is to be condemned. At face value, I certainly don’t approve of spending such vast amounts of money to bail out failing corporations, but I don’t understand economics as well as – well, economists – so I’m willing to go along with it as long as I continue to believe that those in power are making educated decisions.

    • Hey Tyler- Thanks for the additional ways to look at big numbers! The goal of this post was to illustrate the difference in size between numbers that are orders of magnitude apart. However, I agree there are many different ways to think about large numbers; using money as an example is only one of them.

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