What The Heck Is A Trillion?

An editorial
by Chris Hibbard
The Meliorist

What the heck is a trillion?

I read the other day that the American occupation of Iraq (AKA the War on Terror) has reportedly cost three trillion dollars now, a figure that I couldn’t truly wrap my mind around. I sometimes have a hard time figuring out what I would do with a million dollars if I had it. One billion dollars goes over my head, so what the heck is a trillion, and how does one go about spending three of them? After an amusing hour of Internet research, I found some answers.

A trillion, in North American terms, is a one followed by 12 zeros – one million millions in other words.

It is estimated that there are roughly one trillion bacteria living on the human body, a body that is composed of somewhere near 100 trillion cells.

As of 2002, over one trillion digits of pi are known to mathematicians and 953,467,954,114,363 is the largest known prime number.

It is estimated that there are 3.5 trillion fish in the world’s oceans, and something like a million trillion insects on the Earth.

One trillion American pennies could fill a cube that was 273 feet x 273 feet x 273 feet. This cube would be worth ten billion, one hundred and 66 dollars and 40 cents.

If one stacked a trillion pennies into a single tower, that tower would be 986,426 miles high, or if laid flat, would cover an area of nearly 90,000 acres – less than the entire area of Canada that has been reserved for Native American peoples.

There are about one trillion stars in the Pinwheel Galaxy, shown here in a Hubble telescope photograph.

One trillion seconds of ordinary clock time equals 31,546 years.

Needless to say, a trillion is a mighty number, and one trillion dollars is an intimidating amount of money. Frankly, the average human mind isn’t very well equipped to understand such an enormous figure. It’s not like we’ll ever encounter a trillion of anything in our day to day life, so to us, it sounds just like any other big number – 800 million, 60 billion, you get the idea. Yet we all like spending money, so it’s a little easier to think about a trillion in that way.

A trillion dollars would pay for $1.2 trillion would pay for a doubling of cancer research funding, treatment for every currently uninsured American who suffers from diabetes of heart disease, and a global immunization campaign to vaccinate every child on the planet. After all of these things were completed, we’d still have half of our trillion dollars.

With the rest, we could institute free daycare for every Canadian toddler, restore New Orleans to it’s pre-Katrina state, send a peacekeeping force to stop the genocide in Darfur and beat back the Taliban in Afghanistan with enough left over to both fund the National Cancer Research Institute and feed all of Alberta’s homeless people for the next 100 years. This is all a little vague and naïve I admit, but anyone of these things sounds better to me than how it’s being used currently.

In the days before the war in Iraq five years ago, the Pentagon estimated publicly that the occupation would last a few months and would cost about $50 billion. One economic advisor disagreed, claiming $200 billlion was more likely, and he was fired. And now here we are: the occupation, equipment, and ‘reconstruction’ of Iraq is said to be costing more than two billion dollars per week.

The three trillion dollars referred to above includes more than this weekly expenditure, taking into account the long term health care costs for the 16,000 US soldiers injured in Iraq so far, the ever-rising prices of oil, greater global insecurity caused by the war, and the greatly increased costs of recruitment to continually replenish a military that doesn’t even seem to want to be there at all anymore.

These trillion dollars do not include more abstract societal costs: fragmented Western alliances, loss of US credibility in the eyes of other nations and millions of enraged and frightened Muslims.
This little ‘few-month’ war; this military engagement that has lasted longer than World War I; this war which was supposedly once about a guy named Saddam who had no link to September, 2001; will no doubt result in great future expense as well. Once disability payments and medical costs begin to snowball and neglected social systems like health care and education require repair, I foresee a country in deep, deep trouble.

How did America get into this mess, this financial quagmire that will certainly suck us Canadians in too? Could it really have been as easy as this to pull the wool over 301 million pairs of American eyes? Was this done simply by using some clever accounting tricks to hide expenses until it was too late? Or by using an ‘old-boys’ network of political-corporate cronies and sponsors who shared contracts, mercenaries, money laundering duties and alibis? It’s probably a whole lot of both. In fact, we’ll probably never truly know the extent of the damage caused by the conspiracy/comedy of errors that got us into this mess, but our kids and grandkids will scratch their heads, wondering how their ancestors could have betrayed themselves so badly.

But maybe the more important question is this: how are they going to get out of this mess? Will we end up selling our North American souls to the highest international bidder to work off the national debt? Will we work our collective butts off to make enough money to get by after paying enough exorbitant taxes to replenish the depleted national coffers over the next 100 years? Either way, be it by slowly crawling back out of a three trillion dollar hole or by paying back a three trillion dollar loan to some foreign investor, the future for this once-most-powerful nation on the planet looks a little unsteady. Here in oil rich Alberta, we’re their upstairs neighbours, we’ve got the petroleum products that they crave, and we have no locks on our doors.

~ by Chris Hibbard on October 31, 2008.

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