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A business news item caught my eye the other day. The technology firm, Apple, had recently been valued at one trillion dollars. That number looks like this: 1,000,000,000,000. Or you might say, a one, followed by twelve zeros.

First of all, congratulations to Apple! I mean that. I am an Apple user. I have a couple Macs and an iPhone. I even had the iWatch until I stopped wearing watches following my retirement. I like their products and I’ve been pleased with my Apple purchases.

Back to that trillion number. That’s a lot of money! If you are like me, I can’t even wrap my head around how much a trillion is. I don’t think many people really understand just how big this number is.

And that is the point of this article. I decided I wanted to be able to visualize how much a trillion is.

That said, I want to stress that I’m not making any political or social judgements about the implications of trillion-dollar companies, trillion-dollar deficits or even trillion-dollar salaries. But, the fact is, we are now in an era where the trillion number is used frequently. We should at least be able to visualize what a trillion of anything looks like.

I decided to apply the trillion value to something more familiar, that being distance. My basic unit of distance measure is feet, as in, I’m almost 6 feet tall. For you metric folks, that a bit shy of two meters. We all know relative distances between cities and towns that we visit, so feet will give us a good unit of measure from the perspective of relative distances.

1,000 Feet, one Thousand Dollars

One thousand feet is just about .189 miles. That’s about one fifth of a mile. The track surrounding a football field is a bit longer than a fifth of a mile.  Thinking in dollars, 1,000 bucks is roughly the weekly take home pay for someone earning around sixty thousand dollars per year.

100,000 Feet, One Hundred Thousand Dollars

 One hundred thousand feet is just shy of 19 miles. My daily commute, when I worked, was about 19 miles. That was the distance between the downtown area of Cincinnati and the northern suburban area, Tricounty, which is located just inside the Cincinnati beltway. In terms of salary or dollars, 100K per year translates to about nineteen miles.

1,000,000 Feet, One Million Dollars

Okay, now we’re getting into some numbers! A million feet comes to about 189 miles. That is less than the distance between St Louis and Kansas City, Missouri.  People with a net worth of a million dollars per year were once considered wealthy, they still are by most measurements. But a million is not what it used to be. No one would back a television show called The Millionaire in this day and age.

1,000,000,000 feet, One Billion Dollars

A billion feet extends out to about 189 thousand miles. That’s less that the distance between our Planet Earth and the Moon (240,000 miles).  A billion dollars will buy most folks everything they need with plenty left over for a new truck. Seriously, a billion is a lot. A billion-dollar company is considered a large enterprise. Billionaires are still, relatively speaking, quite rare.

1,000,000,000,000 feet, One Trillion Dollars

Things get big quickly. A Trillion feet equals roughly 189 million miles. That distance will take you to our Sun and back to Planet Earth with several million miles to spare. A trillion dollars is vastly more than a billion.

What does that mean to you?

As I mentioned earlier, my intent here is to provide a useful way to visualize what these various numbers mean. We hear politicians, newscasters, pundits and financial experts toss terms like Billion or Trillion around like they are relating football scores.

When you hear these numbers consider your own point of view. Your world is likely defined by 1,000 or 100,000-foot limits. If you are particularly lucky or industrious, you perhaps can see your world in the million-foot perspective.

When you start talking about billion or trillion-foot distances, you really are talking about astronomical numbers. And if you are talking dollars, the same is true.

August 2018
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