A trillion here, trillion there add up to unreal money

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 13, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Let's face it: A trillion dollars is the new billion dollars.

Both are unimaginable sums unless you can visualize, say, a stack of dollar bills 68 miles high, and that's just a billion.

A trillion is a thousand times that: greenbacks piled an entirely inconceivable quarter of the way to the moon.

However, a trillion dollars — a figure once so abstract that it appeared only in long-term Social Security projections — comes up like crocuses these days.

U.S. households lost $5.1 trillion of their worth in the fourth quarter of last year, the Federal Reserve reported Thursday. The world's billionaires lost $2 trillion last year, Forbes magazine reported Wednesday. Then there's the $3.6 trillion federal budget proposed for 2010. And its projected $1.2 trillion deficit. And $1.2 trillion in derivatives that ward-of-the-state American International Group insured.

So it's no surprise that U.S. newspapers and magazines, which used the term "trillion dollars" only six times in March 1980, are on a pace to use it 1,400 times this month, based on figures from the news archive Nexis.

Laurence Seidman, an economist at the University of Delaware in Newark, worries that "a trillion dollars" remains such a mind-boggling concept that it stymies lawmakers — and reporters — who must work with humongous numbers.

Seidman recommends describing trillions of dollars as a percentage of gross domestic product, the total of goods and services that the U.S. economy generates. Last year's GDP came to about $14 trillion, so $1 trillion would be about 7 percent of it.

For $14 trillion, imagine a belt of $100 bills placed end to end, girdling the equator 540 times.

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