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What Does A Trillion Look Like?

We’ve all become pretty accustomed to big numbers. When I was a kid, only millionaires lived in “million dollar house” houses. But until very recently, if you mowed three or four lawns a week, CountryWide would loan you the money to move in next to the Clampetts.

Millionaires are a dime a dozen, today’s ambitious young entrepreneurs want to be billionaires. And our government, always the least fiscally responsible citizen on the block, increasingly talks in term of trillions.

And suddenly I realized – “I have no idea how much a trillion is”. Bottom line – a trillion has a lot of zeros. Compare a trillion to to it’s little brothers.

$1,000,000 One Million
$1,000,000,000 One Billion
$1,000,000,000,000 One Trillion

It occurred to me that the government has pulled a “Vegas” on us where money is concerned. In Las Vegas, you primarily use the local currency – poker chips – instead of cash. Somehow this change in currency makes you forget the real value of money. The same individual that will endure the indignities of shopping at Walmart to save $30 on their groceries will throw down $100 bets in Vegas with wild abandon because it’s “only a chip”.

So when our government talks “trillions” – I think they should print the zeros and put expenses into perspective against something we can all understand. For instance, originally the President said the Iraq was would cost about three hundred billion, or:


That’s a lot of money (especially as we will see a little later on), but now experts say it will cost at least three trillion, or:


Since I am always the bargain seeker, I wondered how good a deal we were getting on this war. Lets compare the cost of Iraq to a few other wars (in current day dollars) that we are pretty familiar with:

Iraq – $3,000,000,000,000
Vietnam – $635,000,000,000
Korea – $445,000,000,000

So of course my initial reaction is that from a pure financial perspective we attacked the wrong crazy dictator. It seems more cost efficient to fight in Korea (and I like the food better). But wars are stupidly expensive in any case, so maybe it is more interesting to compare against what we could have spent our money on instead of blowing things up.

Budget for Iraq War $3,000,000,000,000

Budget for Libraries $208,000,000
Budget for Center for Disease Control to Fight Birth Defects $124,000,000
Budget for National Parks $48,000,000
Budget for Consumer Product Safety Commission $65,000,000

So the combined budgets of the above four important agencies are only about 1/7th the budget for the Iraq war. In fact, the entire budget for The Department of Education is also less than 1/5th of what we will spend on Iraq.

From a pure investment perspective, I personally would have preferred safer food this year, more books for kids to read, healthier babies, and better schools to turn out educated kids that will understand how many zeros there are in a trillion – over mountains of rubble in an Arab desert.

The budget for Habitat for Humanity – which builds houses for people who could otherwise not afford homes – was about $170,000,000. They seem to be pretty efficient with their money – and I can only wonder what would have happened if we have given them a couple hundred million to go build houses in Iraq. For some reason it seems more economical to build houses as opposed to blowing them up.

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