Understanding Trillion


I use this exercise to help my kids understand how big numbers are.

Start with a grain of rice—1.

Now line up 10 of them—10. This is a line of rice about as long as my finger.

Now make 10 rows of 10 each—100. This is a square about half as big as my hand.

Now stack 10 sheets of 10×10 on top of each other—1,000. Roughly, two fists. (This is a little more than I’d eat.)

That’s what thousand looks like compared to 1. Go 10 to the right, 10 back, and 10 up, and fill in the cube.

Now, to understand a million, we think of the 1,000 as 1. Stack 10 next to each other in a row—10,000.

10 rows make a square — 100,000.

10 sheets on top of one another — 1,000,000.

We started with 1 grain of rice, and now we have a table with 10x10x10 large bowls of rice, stacked in a cube.

Now we need to understand a billion grains of rice, so we line up 10 tables in a row, all stacked with 1,000,000 grains of rice — 10,000,000.

Then we lay out 10 rows of these tables next to each other — 100,000,000.

Finally, we put 10 of these on top of each other— 1,000,000,000.

With a billion grains of rice, we have filled an entire room.

Now, let’s stick 10 rooms in a row — 10,000,000,000.

10 rows of rooms in a square — 100,000,000,000.

And make that 10 stories high — 1,000,000,000,000.

That’s a trillion. A large office building, completely filled with rice.

When people in government talk about money, start with something you understand, that is reasonably large. Let’s go with a brand new nice car, $50,000. You would need 20 cars to reach $1,000,000. A billion dollars would be 20 cars, arranged 10 deep, 10 wide, and 10 tall. A trillion dollars would be 1,000 of these—arranged 10 deep, 10 wide, and 10 tall.

We’re at a deficit of well over a trillion dollars. Where is this money coming from? How many cars are people sacrificing so that the government can continue on its spending spree? How many small countries could be completely fed, clothed, and given access to fresh food and clean water for that kind of money?

Our problem is government’s size has become so vast and large that we cannot understand it anymore. Even massive cuts, cuts that equal the value of several countries put together, are not enough to even make a dent in the deficit. If the debt is like the death star, a billion dollars cut would be what happens when an X-Wing factor crashes into the surface.

We need cuts to the tune of thousands of billions of dollars to even being to make a difference. No one in Washington DC, not the Republicans or the Democrats are advocating anything like that.

We are, in a word, completely doomed.


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