I have a guilty pleasure. Well, I have many, but this is one that I am willing to admit to. I love watching the national debt clock. It is a full page of numbers flickering the total US debt broken down in any number of ways. It is as mesmerizing as a 60’s lava lamp with the exception that there is real information there. Or is there? The unit of measure of the national debt is a trillion. But what does that mean?
If I say something using terms that are not understandable, then have I conveyed any information? A trillion is a number that is not understandable to me. I know how many zeros follow a one to make up a trillion. What I don’t know is what that number means. If I had to go to the store and buy a trillion toothpicks, would I go in my mid-size suv, a pickup truck or an eighteen-wheeler? Are there even a trillion toothpicks in existence in the world at any one time?
When I was young, accumulating a million dollars was a lofty goal that only the most successful people could achieve. Today, very few people would not have their lives changed if they suddenly came into a million dollars. The number of people who have actually put their hands on a million dollars at one time is probably very small. But if I had to go to the bank and get a million dollars, how big a vehicle would I need? As it turns out, I could go get it on a bicycle and a small shopping bag. This is what a million dollars looks like in one hundred dollar bills:
The new benchmark of serious wealth is a billion dollars. Now that is some serious cheddar. I can honestly say I do not know anyone that has a billion dollars. Nevertheless, I do wonder how they would transport it if they had to. It appears as though they would need a small moving van to get it done. Here is what a billion dollars looks like:
However, my quest is to understand what a trillion of anything would look like, with one hundred dollar bills being the measuring stick I chose simply because I am not certain that there are that many toothpicks in the world. If I had to move a trillion dollars what sort of vehicle would I need. As it turns out it would not be a bicycle or a moving van. Or a semi. I am not certain that your average railroad train could move this much money at one time because here is what it looks like:
By now, I have convinced myself that I do not understand what a trillion is. However, our national debt is approaching twenty trillion. Now twenty is a number I can understand. And here is what fifteen trillion in hundred dollar bills would look like. That was the national debt five short years ago.
Here is my conclusion: I do not understand what the national debt means simply because I do not understand the term used to describe it: Trillion. I will add it to a list of words that are not understandable to me. That list now includes organic, non-genetically modified, non-fiction and trillion. There could be others.