What $1,000,000,000,000 would buy you

Confronting the federal deficit starts with grasping just how colossal that number actually is. So, what would $1 trillion get you?

The figure is almost incomprehensible: $1,000,000,000,000. One trillion dollars. That’s a dozen zeros.

The Congressional Budget Office reports that during the first nine months of fiscal 2010 — which ends September 30 — the federal government spent $1 trillion more than it took in. That’s another $1 trillion added to a total national debt that stood at just over $13 trillion as of the Fourth of July. (On the bright side, the trillion-dollar nine-month deficit was about $80 billion less red ink than flowed during the same period last year.)

Not so long ago, the idea of a “trillion” anything was so farfetched that it evoked a comic response similar to what the use of the word “gazillion” does today. The 1960s comment attributed to then Senate minority leader (and ever-vigilant deficit hawk) Everett Dirksen — “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money” — seems downright quaint today. (In 1965, the national debt was a paltry $317 billion.)

But, seriously, how much is $1 trillion? To help you wrap your head around that mind-boggling number, and to try to put deficit spending into perspective, consider what $1 trillion will buy, expressed in terms we can all understand:

$1 Trillion Would Buy …

©Courtesy VW

40,816,326 New Cars

The 2010 Volkswagen Jetta TDI wins Kiplinger’s Best in Class honors for cars in the $20,000-to-$25,000 price range. At a sticker price of $24,500 each, $1 trillion would let you drive away with a fleet of Jettas equivalent to 30% of all the cars already on U.S. highways. (The total U.S. car fleet is more than 135 million, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, excluding trucks and SUVs.)

5,574,136 Typical American Homes

According to the National Association of Realtors, the national median price for existing single-family homes in May was $179,400. There are about 80 million detached, single-family homes in the U.S., according to the NAR and the Census Bureau.

140 Billion Hours of Labor

That’s calculated at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Still hard to get your mind around? How about this: One trillion dollars is enough to hire all 2.8 million residents of the state of Kansas — men, women and children — in full-time, minimum-wage jobs for the next 23 years.

A Year’s Salary for 14.7 Million Teachers

According to the National Education Association, the average teacher salary in the state of California is about $68,000. The total number of teachers working in the U.S. was estimated at 6.2 million ten years ago, according to the 2000 U.S. Census (the last official estimate). So $1 trillion would pay Golden State salaries to more than twice that number of teachers.

The Annual Salaries of All 535 Members of Congress for the Next 10,742 Years

The current salary for rank-and-file members of the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate is $174,000. We’re not even counting the extras paid to congressional leaders.

The Star Power of LeBron James for the Next 50,000 Years

A lot of numbers are being thrown around about just how much the basketball superstar will be paid for playing for the Miami Heat. But let’s say it’s just $20 million a year. At that rate, $1 trillion would cover the tab for King James for the next 50 millennia. Heck, King Tut was born less than four millennia ago.

1.33 Trillion Chocolate Bars

Got a hankering for something sweet? A sweet $1 trillion will buy you that many 1.55-ounce Hershey’s Milk Chocolate bars at 75 cents apiece. That’s 64 million tons of chocolate, equivalent to the weight of more than 150,000 Boeing 747-400s.

1,333 Celebrity Divorce Settlements

It’s been widely reported that Tiger Woods may pay $750 million to settle the divorce with his wife, Elin Nordegren. Some commentators say that’s a wild exaggeration, and that a mere $100 million will facilitate the split. But let’s assume the worst (for Tiger). If it costs $750,000,000 to end his marriage, a trillion dollars would cover plenty more tabloid breakups.

A Guaranteed $6.3 Billion Payout for a 65-Year-Old Man Every Month for the Rest of His Life

With the demise of the company pension plan — and its wonderful promise of regular checks in retirement — immediate-payout annuities are garnering more and more attention. These investments let you trade a lump sum for a guaranteed stream of income for the rest of your life. For example, a 65-year-old man with a sweet quarter of a million nest egg to invest could buy an annuity that will pay him $1,564 a month.

Even at today’s record-low interest rates (the lower the interest rate, the more expensive it is to buy future income), $1 trillion earns its way — and then some. Because women live longer than men, on average, $1 trillion would buy a 65-year-old woman a little less. But having $5.8 billion a year to fall back on is nothing to sneeze at.

©Image Source/AGEFotostock

A One-Year CD Yielding $15.5 Billion in Interest

Everyone knows that interest rates on bank accounts, money-market funds and certificates of deposit are ludicrously low. But even at just 1.55% — the best rate we could find recently — $1 trillion socked away in a one-year CD would still yield a handsome return.

Annual Base Pay for 59.5 Million U.S. Army Privates

Basic pay for an active-duty U.S. Army private with less than two years of experience is $16,794 a year. So $1 trillion goes a mighty long way, even by military spending standards. To put that in perspective, 59.5 million privates is more than 100 times the total number of active-duty soldiers in the Army today.

Replace Annual Incomes for 19.2 Million American Families

Median household income in the U.S. (half the families earn more, half earn less) was $52,029 in 2008, according to the Bureau of the Census. At that level, $1 trillion would be enough to cover the incomes of a sizable percentage of total U.S. family households. There are no recent official estimates, but the 2000 U.S. Census figured there were about 71.8 million family households.

Pay the Estate Taxes for 2,222 Billionaires

Let’s assume that, as we expect, Congress reinstates the federal estate tax retroactively to January 1, 2010, with a $3.5 million exemption and a rate of 45%. And assume that the late George Steinbrenner’s taxable estate is $1 billion. The tax bill would be almost $450 million. That $1 trillion would be enough to cover the estate taxes of a lot more billionaires who might die before Congress acts.

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