When You're Talking Trillions, What's a Few Zeroes?

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 13, 2009

When did it get to be the Age of the Trillion?

Late autumn? Just before Christmas? The leaves were gone, and it just slipped into the language: a trillion dollars. People started talking about it as if they knew what it meant. It was like a terabyte on your hard drive: something everybody seemed to know about, but nobody understood.

"Trillion" used to be a whoop-de-do word from science class. Like the amount of time it took for light from Supernova G-338 to reach Earth or something. It wasn't tangible. In 1987, the entire federal budget passed that amount for the first time, but everybody knew it wasn't an actual deposit of money.

Today, it's the amount of cash in Hank Paulson's desk drawer.

"Governors Call for $1 Trillion Stimulus." "Obama Warns of Prospect of Trillion-Dollar Deficits." "The U.S. steel industry is currently lobbying for . . . $1 trillion" in public works.

These are real news reports, but nobody knows how much money it really is. A million million, yeah, but what's that? There are millionaires and billionaires, but there are no trillionaires. Nobody holds anybody ransom for a trillion dollars; there are no pictures of anybody's trillion-dollar home on the Riviera.

Ralph Semmel, head of the applied information sciences department in the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, says that if you started earning $27 million every day, from the day you were born, you'd have $1 trillion in your bank account around your 100th birthday. His colleague Andy Cheng, head scientist in the space department, adds that it's only about 3 billion miles to Pluto.

It's insane, this amount of money. It's come to feel like that moment in the Austin Powers movies, in which time-traveling Dr. Evil wonders how much money to demand to spare Washington, D.C. (we always seem to be the first to go), and comes up with . . . 100 billion dollars!

"Dr. Evil, this is 1969!" the president roars in laughter. "That amount of money doesn't even exist! It's like saying, 'I want a kajillion bajillion dollars!' " Got a kajillion dollars? Call Detroit. GM wants to talk to you.

Computers, though, there's an industry where everyone has learned to appreciate the value of a trillion. In the mid-1980s, the first personal computers came with 5 megabyte hard drives, Semmel notes, a byte being the amount of space roughly needed to store one character. You can get a terabyte hard drive these days for about $120. That's about 200,000 old computers' worth of information. It's junk electronics.

Semmel calls these numbers "flabbergastingly large, yet people bandy them about in computers as if they're nothing."

But still, you're saying, this Age of the Trillion doesn't apply to money. It's just cute math-class examples that don't translate to actual cash.

Your honor, we call Zimbabwe to the stand.

In 1997, $1 was equal to about 10 Zimbabwean dollars. Today -- well, as of late yesterday -- $1 equals 10,148,113.00 Zimbabwean dollars. (That is 10 million and change.) Viewed the other way, one Zimbabwe dollar is now worth 0.0000000985405 of $1. The country just printed a 50 billion note, which will, at least for a day or two, buy two loaves of bread.

Real money. Lots of zeros. Getting scary, isn't it?

© 2009 The Washington Post Company