Sunday, March 01, 2009

that's a lot of zeros

Have you ever tried to spend 3 trillion dollars? They say that's the cost of the war in Iraq and whether your for it or against it, I realized today that I no idea just how much money we're talking about. (To say nothing of the loss of life and the incomparable sacrifice of those who have put themselves in harms' way for my sake.) It turns out that three trillion anything is a lot of zeros.
It's not every day you get a chance to spend that kind of money (unless you're the ruling body of a large and wealthy country). For the rest of us there's a site, that offers the chance to divvy up the money and see what you would buy. First, a caveat, if you go to the site be warned that the anti-war message there is strong and I cannot vouch for their research. That said, it turns out that it takes an amazing amount of time and effort to get through that amount of money.

I had to look up a trillion to see just how many zeros we're talking about. A trillion looks like this 1 000 000 000 000. At first it might not seem that big, but once you get into that last set of zeros, you're talking billions and those are harder to spend.

After half an hour on the site I'd cured world hunger, taught the world to read, and provided clean water to all. I'd given everyone in Africa a malaria net, given full health care to all uninsured Americans (it's a US site, so there was no option to help people here at home), reinstated arts & music education in all American schools and canceled third world debt. I paid off a bunch of people's mortgages, bought a tropical island and a private jet, cured a major disease, cleaned-up all pollution worldwide, bought clothes and school supplies for 10 million kids and decided to treat myself to an iPhone. I thought I was doing pretty well.

I still had close to 2 trillion dollars left.

Even after buying a home for myself and maybe a hybrid, that's a lot of leftovers. As I think about all that money and the enormity of what it can do and what it has been spent on, I'm reminded again that I really, really, don't ever want to be the leader of a large and wealthy country. Can you imagine the responsibility of actually being the person who signs that cheque? I have my hands full just keep track of my own finances, and believe me, that involves far fewer zeros :)

If someone gave me just a little bit of that $3 trillion and let me take a stab at fixing something I wonder what I'd actually go for? It would definitely be either health or education related. Or possibly something that made it easier for qualified families to adopt kids -- the expenses that process can rack up are astounding. I think I'd probably go for something basic like clean water or basic health care. I'd want to work with people like Save the Children who can save a life for so very little. It still seems unbelievably wrong that I can walk to store and buy a pill that cures an illness people elsewhere die from.

How would you spend $3 trillion?


DAve and JAnie said...

Wow Claire, what a fantastic post, and fantastic website! I am doing my social policy course for social welfare, so everything I am reading about this semester has to do with political ideologies, economics, and the state of social welfare (in canada). Creating laws and spending money are very important topics that I am just beginning to comprehend. But trying to wisely use three trillion dollars in an equitable fashion.... wow!
I feel like saying "enjoy your fake satisfied children and iphone" but that seems so insensitive attached to a post like this... so
I hope you continue to find ways to positively effect change in this world!

Mom & Dad Colvin said...


We had no idea that the cost for that war was so much. Wars are easy and often straightforward to get into but almost impossible to get out of - don't want to invalidate the sacrifices of those who have lost their lives, or write-off the money already spent with nothing to show for it etc.

Three trillion is an unimaginable number, even when you see it written down.

Your blog has certainly got us thinking.

love, Mom & Dad XX