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Comprehending a Billion, Trillion Dollars

I know a great deal of others are experiencing a great sense of edginess over this hastily put together stimulus plan. Do you realize that both the House and the Senate were voting on the legislation for this package before it was even completed?

Today I have the need to espouse my own trepidations and why they exist. Moreover, if there are any readers out there who can straighten me out, primarily with a comfortability factor, maybe even some evidence, I thank you in advance and I am indebted to you. How about … is this stuff for real?

People these days have no problem with “devaluing” the meaning of money. The simple truth of this matter is there are very few people who understand the meaning of the sums of money being thrown around today by politicians and the irresponsible press.

The genius of our numbering system is that we can signify massive quantities in short spaces. One billion takes no longer to write than one million takes. However, conceptualizing one billion dollars is a difficult task without some type of visual representation.

According to the authors at Expand Your Mind  this is one of the better concepts I’ve heard: To count to one thousand, counting one number every second continuously, it would take seventeen minutes. Counting to one million at the same rate, it would take twelve days (counting nonstop, day and night). But counting to one billion would take thirty-two years!

That’s right ... thirty-two years! Anyone care to try what a trillion would take?

David Schwartz, a children’s book author who’s How Much Is a Million? tries to wrap young minds around the concept. “A billion seconds is thirty-two years. And a trillion seconds is 32,000 years. I like to say that I have a pretty good idea what I’ll be doing a million seconds from now, no idea what I’ll be doing a billion seconds from now, and an excellent idea of what I’ll be doing a trillion seconds from now.”

According to Time online, our puny human brains aren’t particularly up to the task. Go back thousands of years and think about the simpler times of human existence. “We had a few friends; we had to be scared of a few animals. A trillion didn’t come up very often,” says Temple University mathematician John Allen Paulos, whose book Innumeracy addresses the topic. 

As illustrated above, there is an astonishing difference between an “m” and a “b” in front of “illion!” Using the same scale below (where one billion is six inches to the right of one million), one trillion would reside on the same line, 500 feet to the right of one billion! (Source: Expand Your Mind)

“There is a sense that when numbers are too big or too small, the brain just shuts off,” says Colin Camerer, a professor of behavioral economics at the California Institute of Technology. “People either don’t think about it at all or there is fear, an exaggerated reaction.”

With all due respect to our elected officials and their special interest groups I believe that this number spewing has been presented this way on purpose—knowing in advance that humans do not decipher huge numbers well.

In other words, how many different ways can we present just how much we want without scaring them to living death? Consider the data presented here and please click on the source references.