on Wall Street
or... “How Much Does it Cost to Run a Country, Anyway?”
Mary L. Radnofsky, Resident Educator & Humorist
September 30, 2008
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tossed around the recent Wall Street crash and bailouts these days
are in the trillions (1,000,000,000,000) of dollars. No, you can’t
fit that many zeros on your “Wonders of Hawaii” personal
checks. But the amount itself is a wonder of mathematical creation.
It is also virtually incomprehensible.
Aside from all the zeros, the real problem is that most
people (i.e. those of us with less-than-six-figure-incomes) simply
have no idea just how much millions, billions,
and trillions of dollars actually represent in the “real”
world. In fact, each of these numbers is respectively so much bigger
than the one before, that our common terms of “lots”
or “more,” “lots more,” and “a whole
lot more” don’t even come close to describing these
outrageously, insanely huge amounts of money. Further, this isn’t
the first time that the United States is considering writing a check
with eleven or twelve zeros.
cost of the war in Afghanistan (though officially unreported
by the DOD) is estimated between $200 billion and $500 billion
and counting. The war in Iraq is calculated at $550 billion
and, of course, counting (Estimates vary because accounting
reports on the War on Terror include several fronts.). The
1990s Savings & Loan bailout cost about $160 billion.
The Fannie Mae & Freddie Mac bailout is estimated at
$200 billion. The AIG bailout is scheduled for $85 billion.
The current auto industry bailout is authorized for $25
billion. The recent Bear Stearns bailout was $29 billion.
Oh, and by the way, one sunny afternoon last week, the Federal
Reserve quietly and nicely "injected" $2 billion into mutual
funds because they simply needed cash. Hey, what’s
a billion here or there anymore?
If Time = Money, Then Your Money
= Your Time
just what is a million, billion or trillion? Let’s look
at these numbers in terms of time instead of money. Since you
know that time = money, then let’s turn all this Wall Street
money into time...your time in Paradise. Imagine swimming or grilling
or riding up to the North Shore. Nice, hm? Let your mind wander.
Start counting laps, or numbers of cars you pass. Count out loud
if you can, 1, 2, 3... at a rate of one number per second. If
you go non-stop, you can reach 1000, for example, in 16 minutes
36 seconds. That’s a lot of numbers, but, hey, you get the
idea of how many dollar bills that represents, right? And if you
could win $1000 counting out loud for a quarter hour, you’d
probably do it.
But let’s add three more zeros to get into the
“-illion” numbers discussed daily in the news. Still
thinking in terms of time, to count to 1,000,000 (one million),
it’d take you about 11-1/2 days. Remember, that’s
counting out loud, 24 hours a day, every day, with no breaks for
over a week and a half. “Lots” of money, hm? But countable.
Add three more zeros again, and you get 1,000,000,000
(one billion). But, you probably won’t want to try this
next one at home. To count to one billion, it would take you about
31 years and 8 months, non-stop, every day, all day, no breaks
to eat, talk, or... anything. “A lot more” than just
a million, right? We’re not even at the total Wall Street
bailout number yet, or the market value lost on the New York Stock
Exchange in the past week.
So let’s add three more zeros (and a really
useful comma), so we finally get one trillion (1,000,000,000,000).
Reminder: You have only one second to pronounce each
number (and I defy you to say, “nine hundred ninety-nine
billion, nine-hundred-ninety-nine million, nine-hundred ninety-nine
thousand, nine-hundred-ninety-nine” in one second). Even
if you could, though, you’d have to teach your children,
grandchildren, and hundreds of generations after them to count
that high. Here’s why: The non-stop counting up to a trillion
will take over 31,688 years. Yup, that’s “a whole
lot more” time than any one of us will have here on Earth.
That means if you wanted to count your trillion dollars
before picking up some bargains on Wall Street tomorrow, you would’ve
had to start counting it when you were an advanced Neanderthal,
over 31,000 years ago. (I’m not talking about the furry
fellow in the Geico ads or any government officials recently seen
on TV. I mean our really old ancestors that lived in caves and
tents, hunted wtih spears, and could build a fire without matches.)
Seeing Money in Stacks of Bills
Still a little confused? That’s ok. Let’s
try something else. If thinking that a trillion seconds is three
millenia doesn’t help you better understand this colossal
number, think in terms of actual bills. You’ll eventually
need a whole lot of them, of course, so you better start saving
– oh, but wait! We don’t have a trillion extra one-dollar
bills on hand right now. And even if we did, we don’t have
time to count them out. Hmmm. Better use thousand-dollar bills
instead. No worries.
OK, now take a breath. Start with a $1,000 bill lying
around the house. Can’t find one? (Hint: It’s the
one with President Grover Cleveland.) Still having trouble? Just
get some blank checks from your checkbook. Sign them if you like;
it’s just as smart as leaving thousand-dollar bills around
grab a few handfuls of the checks or bills and pile them
about as high as two Big Macs on top of one other. Balance
them to make a neat stack. (Easier than balancing your checkbook?
Don’t worry, if you overdraw, someone will bail you
out someday.) Anyway, that stack represents approximately
one million dollars in thousand-dollar bills. That's
$1,000,000 (and two full days' worth of calories) sitting
on your plate.
But let’s add three more zeros and see what
Head for downtown Honolulu and stack those thousand-dollar
bills up two sides of the Aloha Tower, all the way up the flagpole.
Good job. Now you’re looking at about $1,000,000,000 (one
billion dollars). “A lot more” than a couple burgers,
hm? Starting to see just a billion? Remember the country deals
in hundreds of billions all the time, though, so that would mean
hundreds of billion-dollar Aloha Towers. That a lot of aloha,
Take a minute now to try and predict how high you'd
have to stack your thousand-dollar bills to total $1,000,000,000,000
(one trillion dollars). I'll wait while you think.
Well, this last whole stack of bills is going to be
harder to see, partly because it’s going to have to be built
after sunset. Look up into our starry night sky and find the brightest
little white light that moves. (No stars, planets, or
military aircraft.) Watch as the light advances from horizon to
horizon in 4 or 5 minutes (That little speck is actually traveling
17,500 miles per hour, but don’t worry about speeding tickets
just now.). Nope, it’s not a bird. It’s not a plane.
It’s the International Space Station orbiting about a hundred
miles above the Earth.
But why are we star-gazing in the midst of this article?
It’s because you need to stack your bills up to the Space
Station to get $1,000,000,000,000 (one trillion dollars). For
those of you who tried instead to use one-dollar bills (umm, you
may be at this for a long time), you’ll need to stack them
halfway to the moon. But please don’t—at
least, not until we talk about how far away it is! For now, you've
got a stack of thousand-dollar bills that reaches above the atmosphere
and into space.
So now you're also in a much better position to figure
out Wall Street. Well, maybe we still don't get all the economics
of it, but we can at least start to understand how much money
is floating around out there, and how much it takes to run a country.
Why bother? Because it's our responsibility to understand. Let’s
just be thankful that we don’t have to get a quadrillion
of anything, hm?
At least, not yet.
Ways to understand really big numbers
cite this article using the following information in whatever format
your style sheet requires:
Radnofsky, M. (9/30/2008) Neanderthals
on Wall Street... or How Much Does it Cost to Run a Country Anyway?
The Socrates Institute.