The United States Federal Government is more than $14 trillion in debt. I think that one of the problems in our political discussions over the debt is that the human mind is simply not designed to comprehend such large numbers. We may understand them on an intellectual level but not on an emotional or “gut” level. I am not sure what the largest number we can really understand intuitively, maybe 20 or 100. Anyone can instantly tell the difference between 10 and 20 or 50 and 100, but when it comes to millions or billions, it’s harder to compare.
The largest number the ancient Greeks and Romans used was the “myriad” which was 10,000. So 50,000 was 50 myriad, 1,000,000 was 100 myriad, and so on. This went up all the way to a myriad myriad which means 100,000,000. They didn’t really need any numbers larger than that.
By the time of the Renaissance, mathematicians and bankers needed larger numbers. The precise meaning of large number names varies from country to country. I will be using American usage. A million is a thousand thousand. The word million was coined sometime in the 14th century from French and Italian. A billion is a thousand million. The word was coined around 1680 and means simply two + million. A trillion is a thousand billion. The word was also coined around 1680 and means three + million. I could go on with quadrillion, quintillion, and so on but I think you get the point. Anyway mathematicians and scientists who use really large number use scientific notation, which is beyond the scope of this post.
All right now, let’s see if we can understand 14 trillion. Fourteen doesn’t seem to be a large number, does it? Well, let’s convert the trillions to billions giving us 14 thousand billion. That seems a bit larger. Now let’s go further down to millions. Now we have 14 thousand thousand million. One more step. Try thinking about 14 thousand thousand thousand. That sounds like a whole lot more than just 14 trillion.
Whichever way you put it, that is a truly astronomical number. It is more than the number of stars in our galaxy. It is more than the number of galaxies in the observable universe. It’s a little more than half the distance to Alpha Centauri, the nearest star, in miles, but give Obama a second term and I’m sure we’ll get there.
If any of this doesn’t help, here is a visual aid I got from life’s little mysteries.
With all that in mind, the current controversy concerning the debt limit seems to me to be rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The iceberg has hit us and we had better start plugging the hole.