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How Much Is A Billion?

Understanding The Budget: What Is A Billion In Political Terms?

Politicians -- at the state and federal level -- talk in numbers that most folks can't visualize.

So how much is a billion? What does it mean to say that something costs a billion dollars?

First, we have to clarify that we're using the US system of numbers (short scale), not the British system (long scale). If we're talking about the things relating to the US political system, we are using the US system. Here's the math:

1 Thousand 1,000 103
1 Million 1,000,000 106
1 Billion 1,000,000,000 109
1 Trillion 1,000,000,000,000 1012
1 Quadrillion 1,000,000,000,000,000 1015
1 Quintillion 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 1018

The chart, however accurate, doesn't put the number -- one thousand million -- into perspective. Most of us know that the numbers are big, we just don't know how to think of them in the context of our own lives. Here are some attempts, collected from around the Net:

  • If we wanted to pay down a billion dollars of the US debt, paying one dollar a second, it would take 31 years, 259 days, 1 hour, 46 minutes, and 40 seconds. To pay off a trillion dollars of debt, at a dollar a second, would take about 32,000 years.
  • About a billion minutes ago, the Roman Empire was in full swing. (One billion minutes is about 1,900 years.)
  • About a billion hours ago, we were living in the Stone Age. (One billion hours is about 114,000 years.)
  • About a billion months ago, dinosaurs walked the earth. (One billion months is about 82 million years.)
  • A billion inches is 15,783 miles, more than halfway around the earth (circumference).
  • The earth is about 8,000 miles wide (diameter), and the sun is about 800,000 miles wide, not quite a million.
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