The Trillion-Dollar Question

Trillions of Trillions

This meme appeared on Facebook accompanied by the caption: Share with as many as you can!!!  People need to understand

I’m not sure what the author wants people to understand, but the only message I’m taking away from this meme is that the author doesn’t know how numbers work.

When it comes to naming huge numbers, there are two scales.  If you were educated in an English-speaking country, you most likely learned the short scale.  In the short scale, a one followed by six zeroes is called a million, like this:

1,000,000 = 1 million

Multiply 1 million by 1000, and you’ve got a billion:

1,000,000,000 = 1 thousand million = 1 billion

Every three zeroes that you tack onto the end of the number causes it to get a new name, like this:

1,000,000,000,000 = 1 trillion

1,000,000,000,000,000 = 1 quadrillion

1,000,000,000,000,000,000 = 1 quintillion

1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 = 1 sextillion

If you were educated in a Continental European nation, you probably learned the long scale.  On the long scale, 1,000,000 is still called a million, but there the similarities end.  Numbers don’t get a new name until they have accumulated six more zeroes, so a billion on the long scale is 1 million million, or 1,000,000,000,000.  This is what we short scale users would call a trillion.  And the number that long scalers call a trillion is equal to what we would call a quintillion (with 18 zeroes).

1,000,000,000 = 1 thousand million (sometimes called 1 milliard)

1,000,000,000,000 = 1 billion

1,000,000,000,000,000 = 1 thousand billion (or 1 billiard)

1,000,000,000,000,000,000 = 1 trillion

1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 = 1 thousand trillion (or 1 trilliard)

And so on…

This meme starts with the number $1,000,000,000,000,000,000 (18 zeroes), which the author refers to as a trillion.  That would be correct if the author were using the long scale.  But the author is clearly a proficient English user, and his meme seems to be directed toward an American audience (since the United States National Debt now stands at just over 18 trillion dollars, according to The Concord Coalition).  I’m at a loss to explain how this combination of numbers and words could wind up on the same meme!

Regardless of what the author calls $1 x 1024, he’s just wrong.  That’s more than the combined value of all the money on Earth; many times more, in fact.  The United States’ debt isn’t anywhere near that value, nor could it be, unless the government decided to build a Death Star after all and didn’t tell anybody about it.  From the outset this meme contains faulty – some might say ludicrous – information, and it just goes downhill from there.

In order to demonstrate how much a trillion (or quintillion) dollars really is, he decides to break it down to minute-by-minute spending.  Now this is a noble effort if you want to impress your audience with the hugeness of a number, but why does he start counting 2015 years ago, during the time of Christ?  The United States wasn’t around to accrue debt back then!  It’s a completely arbitrary start date, unless the author is one of those people who mistakenly believes that the United States is 2015 years old.

Still, let’s go with it.  The author’s first task, which he spells out for us in plain English, is to divide one trillion (whatever you hold that to be) by 2015.  Because why not, I guess.

The author comes up with the following quotient: $496,277,915,632.77 – about 500 billion dollars.  But when I divide 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 by 2015, I get a substantially larger result: about 500 (short scale) trillion dollars!  I started with the same two numbers he did, but somehow my answer came out 1000 times larger than his.  Huh.

Okay, I thought, let’s give this guy the benefit of the doubt.  Maybe he really does know what a short scale trillion looks like, and he mistakenly typed too many zeroes in the numerical representation at the top of the meme.

But that doesn’t work either.  If we assume that he meant to divide $1,000,000,000,000 (1 short scale trillion) by 2015, we get about $500 million, or one one-thousandth of the quotient he listed.  So depending on which version of a trillion he started with, he either overshot or undershot the correct answer by a factor of 1000.

This guy is trying to make a statement about the size of the national debt, but he doesn’t seem to have the mathematical chops to process the numbers involved.  Call me cynical, but I am not hopeful that this will improve as we go on.

Next, our intrepid numbersmith divides by 365 since, as we all know, there are 365 days in each and every year, right?  Interestingly enough, the author manages to get this calculation correct; or I should say, the answer would be correct if the number from which he started were correct.  If you divide $496,277,915,632.77, the author’s solution to his first self-imposed math problem, by 365, you do get about $1.36 billion.  But remember, his first calculation was off by a three orders of magnitude, so this tiny mathematical victory isn’t really anything to celebrate.

The author competently divides his result by 24, then once again by 60, to conclude that you would have to spend about 1 million dollars per minute for 2015 years in order to spend $1 trillion.  But since the author’s initial error has continued unchecked into the final calculation, we know that’s wrong.  If you were trying to spend a short scale trillion in 2015 years (accounting for leap years), you would only have to spend about $944 per minute in order to do so.

After his mathematical gymnastics, the author’s dismount is a stunning non sequitur from a large national debt to an imminent crash.  We’re left to ponder whether the author really is crazy (his word, not mine!).  Personally, I don’t think he’s crazy.  Ignorant, perhaps.  Unwilling to think critically, maybe.  But crazy?  No.

The sad thing is: he’s right about the national debt being huge, and it is a topic worth discussing.  But the author does himself no favors by couching his argument in numerical misconceptions and mathematical blunders.  I’ve said this before: a meme is just about the worst way to communicate important ideas.  It would be much wiser to link to a scholarly article about the national debt, and about its looming implications, than to try to condense an entire debate into a half-assed meme.  When you try to push an agenda in meme form, you don’t convince the opposition.  You simply paint a target on your back that is irresistible to pedantic assholes like me.

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