Traverse City Record-Eagle

March 31, 2013

Reflections: 'Trillion' hard to wrap your mind around

By Ed Hungness
Special to the Record-Eagle


In 2009, I wrote a column some readers might recall. It was titled, “1,000,000,000,000.” 

The general theme of the piece was to illustrate and try to understand a number that is almost inconceivable to all except for the most accomplished mathematicians. 

The largest denomination of U.S. currency in circulation today is the $100 bill. When printed at the mint, they are banded in stacks of 100 bills. Each packet is valued at $10,000 and is approximately half-inch tall. 

To help us understand the magnitude of a trillion, I first journeyed from thousands to millions and then struggled with the enormity of billions which eventually led us to a trillion. Simply stated, it is the number one followed by 12 zeros.

My most visual illustration was of a billion dollars. If one possessed a billion dollars in $100 bills and started stacking them up, the pile of money would be 4,166 feet high. The Burj Dubai, which is the tallest building in the world, is 2,684 feet tall. The stack of $100s would be almost 1,500 feet taller than this building. Remember, we are only talking about 1 billion. One trillion is 1,000 billions. 

With calculator in hand, it is easy to compute, but difficult to comprehend. One trillion dollars in $100 bills would dwarf the billion and our stack would now be 4,166,000 feet tall or 789 miles into the sky. Defining a trillion in these terms, although overwhelming, illustrates the vastness of this number.

The subject matter of my writing usually steers clear of religion and politics. There is already plenty of that to go around and these subjects are covered by individuals far more astute than I. While difficult to fathom, the dismal fact is that our great nation is currently over $16,700,000,000,000 (16 trillion,700 billion) in hock and the number is growing at the rate of over 1 trillion dollars per year. Just imagine if this was your credit card balance. Think of the monthly interest charges. Think of the late fees!

The latest census figures put the population of the U.S.A. at 313,914,040. If the National Debt was assigned to a collection agency and that organization started banging on doors, most folks would be shocked to learn they would be expected to pay $53,200 to eliminate this debt. This amount would be owed by every man, woman and child. The kids’ piggy banks most likely don’t contain $53,200, so let’s give them a break and let them off the hook. It is good to let children be children. We also can’t go after the extremely poor.

 To be fair, let’s assume the collection agency pursues only the 113 million U.S. citizens who pay income tax. The taxpayers ultimately are responsible for financing the government’s various programs and activities. What they don’t contribute, the government must borrow. In simple terms, this is how we got into the situation we are in; too much borrowing to pay for too much spending.

In this figurative illustration, the responsibility for collecting the loan becomes easier for the collection agency, but a little more painful for the taxpayers. If collection notices were sent out, each taxpayer would be expected to fork over $147,500 as their share of the debt repayment. If we didn’t pay the bill, it would continue to accrue interest plus late fees. If we never caught up and paid the obligation, our children and grandchildren would be forced to deal with it after we’re gone.

Sobering thought, isn’t it? Let’s hope that the politicians who are responsible for the spending and borrowing get things under control — and soon.

Ed Hungness and his wife became full-time residents of Fife Lake in 2005 after Ed’s retirement. He can be reached at or by mail at P.O. Box 57, Fife Lake, MI 49633.