How much is a trillion?


The late Everett Dirksen, U.S. Senator from Illinois (1959-69), is often misquoted for saying, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.” If only we were still concerned about billions of dollars.  As it is, government spending numbers now usually run in the trillions.

The U.S. national debt has climbed to over $28 trillion, and it’s growing. Not included are recent economic stimulus measures, nor estimates of unfunded entitlement program spending for the remainder of this century – which are, depending on your source, between $32 trillion and $114 trillion. As one example, Social Security Trustees estimate unfunded obligations over the next 75 years will swell to $16.8 trillion, up from the $13.9 trillion estimate a year ago.

Dividing $28 trillion among every U.S. citizen – nearly 333 million of us in 2021 – comes to almost $85,000 per person. If you consider only U.S. citizens who pay income taxes, that number is $224,000 per person.

And we’re only talking about federal accumulated debt here. Most every state and local government has debt obligations. In Iowa, that number is currently over $6,900 per citizen.

How much is a trillion (1,000,000,000,000) of something? Do you have any idea? Here are some examples that may help conceptualize such an enormous amount:

  • One thousand inches equals nearly 28 yards. One million inches is about 16 miles. One billion inches is 16,000 miles. And one trillion inches, that’s 16 million miles.
  • The average distance from the Earth to the Moon is 238,857 miles. If you laid a trillion one-dollar bills end-to-end, that chain stretches from the Earth to the Moon and back 200 times; 28 trillion would be 5,600 roundtrips.
  • If you spent $1 every second, it would take 11.57 days to reach $1 million; 31.55 years to spend $1 billion; and 31,546 years for $1 trillion. To get to $28 trillion would take you a cool 883,288 years. For some perspective, 883,288 years ago, the precursor of Homo sapiens was migrating out of northeast Africa into China, Australia and Europe.
  • A trillion dollars provides a daily allowance of $1,000,000 for 3,000 years. Take that times 28, and you’d be comfortable with $28,000,000 per day for 3,000 years.
  • A military jet flying at the speed of sound (767 mph) while reeling out a roll of single dollar bills behind takes 14 years before the trail of money hits the first trillion-dollar mark – and 392 years until 28 trillion is reached.
  • And finally, with $1 trillion over the last decade, you could have:

– built more than 140,000 new elementary schools for $7 million apiece (in 2018, there were 87,498 elementary schools total in the U.S.).

– installed some 570,000 wind turbine generators (only 60,000 exist in the U.S. today); or,

– constructed 3.7 million new homes at $273,000 apiece, which is six homes for every homeless person in America. If you had $28 trillion, well – you don’t want to know.

So while a billion of something is a lot, a trillion is nearly incomprehensible. The accountability of public officials for such massive debt levels is critical. President Thomas Jefferson stated, “the principle of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding, is but swindling futurity on a large scale.” When it comes to dealing with trillions, swindling our future generations is what’s at stake. •

Elliott G. Smith is a former executive director of the Iowa Business Council and Board Member of the Iowa Utilities Board. He currently serves as a business development advisor for Goldfinch Health.