Billions and Trillions Confusion

Here’s a quote from a recent BBC news article:

Eurozone leaders have agreed on a comprehensive package designed to shore up banks, including making more than a 1,000bn euros ($1,366bn) available for interbank loans.

Notice anything strange about it? That’s right, 1,000bn euros and the dollar equivalent.

When I first saw that, I thought it was wrong, it had to be “one trillion”, so off I went try to confirm my suspicion.

What’s a billion?

There are two answers:

  • Short scale: 1,000,000,000 (one thousand million), and
  • Long scale: 1,000,000,000,000 (one million million)

The first is typically U.S. English, and the second British, but according to Wikipedia, “In 1974 the government of the UK abandoned the long scale, so that the UK now applies the short scale interpretation exclusively in mass media and official usage.”

What’s a trillion?

A trillion also has short and long scale versions, the latter of which is equivalent to a million million million! From this, we can assume that a trillion dollars in the monetary sense is “one thousand billion dollars”, or $1,000,000,000,000. So, if $1,000bn is $1 trillion, then the BBC should have written the value as $1.366 trillion. Either it’s an honest mistake or an attempt to make the value look less than it actually is.

Just how much is a trillion dollars?

I’ll finish with this great explanation from Pick Wayne’s Brain

Let’s imagine that you have a fantastic job that pays you one dollar for every second you work. There are 60 seconds in a minute and 60 minutes in an hour. If you were only getting paid for as 40-hour work week for all 52 weeks of the year, you would still be getting paid $7,488,000 in a year. And if you were getting your $1/sec rate for every second of the year, you would take in $31,536,000 for the entire year. At that rate, to earn a trillion dollars, you would have to work more than 31,709 years! And even if they magnanimously paid you $1,000/sec, it would still take you more than 31 years to earn that first $1 Trillion. They say the war in Iraq is costing taxpayers about $2 Billion dollars per week. There are 3,600 seconds in an hour, 24 hours in a day, and 7 days in a week for a total of 604,800 seconds per week. At $2 Billion per week, the Iraq War costs us over $3,000 every second! Can I borrow a couple of bucks for the rent this month?

7 comments

  1. Keith

    I found this very interesting Nick. While I was aware of the fact that the short scale was in use, I was never aware of the long scale.
    I trillion buckaroos would probably make me retire mmmmmmm have to think about that!!

  2. Steve in Nagoya

    Maybe I’m dumb, but this has always confused me. Why say, “one thousand million” when you can just say one billion (1 followed by 9 zeros)? But then again I was an English major hence my inability to understand anything involving numbers.

    And Keith, wouldn’t a trillion buckaroos with their horses, whiskey, and six shooters make a huge mess?

  3. Mum

    Wow Nick! That took some working out. I always used to think a billion was a million million, and couldn’t understand how it has now become a thousand million. It is a totally different amount of money. No wonder there are so many billionaires in the world now.