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How to Visualize a Trillion-Meredith Margrave September 21, 2011

5 Ways to Visualize Our $14.5 Trillion National Debt

$14.5 trillion. That's roughly the current size of the U.S. national debt. And it continues to grow every second.

It seems like everyone, from blue-chip execs to members of congress, is throwing around words like million, billion and trillion without any comprehension of what they really represent. CNN even goes so far as to call trillion "the new billion."

Why is it so hard to wrap your head around these big numbers?

K.C. Cole, a commentator for American Public Media's Marketplace says it's just the way we're wired. According to Cole, "We automatically 'read' a billion as about a third of a trillion. After all, it's only three zeros off. But of course, a trillion is a thousand times a billion, and a thousand is a lot."

What Cole is saying may surprise you. A thousand doesn't seem like such a big number -- most people have at least $1,000 in their bank account. But divide your $200,000 annual salary by a factor of a thousand, and you'll find yourself scraping by on only $200 a year.

Increase the size of a classroom by the same amount, and your 15 students are suddenly a mob of 15,000. The distinction is roughly the difference between a million and a billion.

So how do you visualize a trillion? Creative people are coming up with new and better ways all the time. According to the MegaPenny Project, a cube of one trillion pennies stacked together would be 273 feet tall, somewhere between the height of the Washington Monument and the Empire State Building.

Here are our five favorite ways to put this colossal number into context.

Can you guess how many days it takes for a trillion seconds to pass? If you said, "Let me go get my calculator," you're on the right track. I'll give you a hint: Each 24-hour day is worth 86,400 seconds. That's a huge number! But it's no where near a trillion.

* A million seconds is 13 days.
* A billion seconds is 31 years.
* A trillion seconds is 31,688 years.

A brand new Porsche 911 is a pretty luxurious purchase. Only the truly wealthy can afford to plunk down $88,800 on a car that fits two people and a weekend bag. But with a trillion dollars, in addition to a diploma you could give a set of keys to every graduating high school student in the country -- for the next four years!

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