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How Much Is a Billion and What Does It Buy You?

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

Politicians at both the state and federal levels talk in numbers that most folks can't comprehend, a billion this and a trillion that.

For example, we now know that if you want to run for president and have any chance of winning, you're going to need about $1 billion. Spending on the 2012 presidential election reached about $2 billion.

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

A Billion Now Versus A Billion Then

One this we do know is $1 billion doesn't go nearly as far as it used to, thanks to inflation. What cost $1 billion in 1980, for example, would now cost you nearly three times as much, or about $2.9 billion, according to the Consumer Price Index.

What cost $1 billion in 1950 would now cost you nearly 10 times as much, or about $10 billion.

What a Billion Looks Like in Mathematical Terms

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

A Billion in Real Terms

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:

  • The world's wealthiest person, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, is worth nearly $80 billion, according to Forbes. There are more than 1,800 people in the world who are billionaires. There are not, however, any billionaire members of Congress; the wealthiest Washington politician, U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, was worth only a cool $598 million when he served in the 113th Congress.
  • If you had $1 billion you could buy about 2,300 convertible Lamborghini sports cars, about nine of the most expensive penthouses on Park Avenue in Manhattan, about 100 of the mansions like the one Pharrell Williams moved into, and about 500 bottles of the world's most expensive champagne - the $2 million-a-bottle Gout de Diamants.
  • If we wanted to pay down a billion dollars of the U.S. 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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