I Think They Screwed Up the Math

The National Journal tries to give real world equivilents to show how large federal spending is.  It's so large that editors can't reality check the numbers very well.  They write

You could cover 10,319 miles with $1 bills.

If you placed 3.73 trillion $1 bills end to end, length wise, it would stretch from Miami to Seattle 3.6 times, leaving you somewhere around Wyoming.

Actually, by my calculator (and that of a reader) if you assume each bill is 6 inches long, you could cover 353.2 MILLION miles.  This is not 3.6 times the distance from Miami to Seattle, but 3.8 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun!


  1. SB7:

    But what's a few orders of magnitude to journalists, really?

  2. Elliot:

    I always assumed bills were 6.0" in length. My dad told me so and I just took it as fact.

    But, according to Wikipedia, they are actually 6.14" in length (6.14 × 2.61 × 0.0043 in = 156 × 66.3 × 0.11 mm). I don't have a ruler handy, so I'll assume that that's accurate. But you might want to double-check the actual measurements if you plan on publicizing such figures in Forbes, for example. I'm sure there are plenty of geeks who'll know this.

  3. LoneSnark:

    According to Google: 3.73 trillion x 6.14 inches = 361,461,490 miles

    I truly love Google Calculator.

    Using dollar bills short ways, (width): 3.73 trillion x 2.61 inches = 153,650,568 miles

    And stacked: 3.73 trillion x 0.0043 inches = 253,140.783 miles

    All based upon the Wikipedia values.

  4. A Friend:

    Unfortunately for the reporters, even if you stacked the bills the thin way (.0043 inch on Elliot's number) it's still 250,000 thousand miles, which would get you to the moon from Seattle, not Miami.

    I've never seen an answer that wrong.

  5. A Friend:

    Wow, almost every number on that page is wrong. The statue of liberty example is two orders of magnitude wrong. The midsize car example is one order wrong. Holy crap should those reporters and editors be fired.

  6. tehag:

    Hmm, let's see: a dollar bill is about 16 square inches, or about 103 square centimeters. 3.73 trillion x 0.0000000103 square kilometers = 38,500,000 square kilometers. The surface area of the Earth is about 510,072,000 sq km, so all those dollars will only cover about 7% of the Earth's surface. Not so much after all. It is about the surface area of the moon, however. Unless I dropped or added a zero somewhere. :(

  7. Steven:

    It would take light over 32 min to travel that far! A new way to measure the debt with lower, easier to comprehend numbers!

  8. L Nettles:

    astronomical unit (abbreviated as AU, au or a.u.) is a unit of length equal to about 149,597,870.7 kilometres[1] (92,955,807.27 miles) or approximately the mean Earth–Sun distance.

    Measured in Dollar bill lengths, the budget is 3.8 astronomical units. Truly astronomical.

  9. Wha??:

    What should we call the new unit, the distance light travels over dollar bills in 32 minutes?

  10. Not Sure:

    A politicometer?

  11. chuck martel:

    A dollar bill is a convenient measuring device if you remember that it's 6 1/8" long.

  12. Marko:

    The reversed the labels. There are 5280 feet per mile, or 63,360 inches. If a dollar bill is 6.14 inches long, that comes to 10,319 bills per mile.

  13. DaveinVermont:

    Someone please check my figures and calculations on this!!

    288 Inches - Minimum width, in inches of a double lane highway. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interstate_Highway_standards

    63,360 - Number of inches per mile (5,280 * 12)

    18,247,680 - Number of square inches per mile of a double lane highway (288* 63,360)

    16.03 Square Inches - Number of square inches of a Dollar Bill (2.61 inches * 6.14 inches)

    1,138,672 - Dollar Bills required to cover 1 mile of double lane highway (18,247,680 / 16.03)

    2,894 Miles - Length, in miles, of Route 80 (Atlantic to Pacific (Ft. Lee, NJ  Richmond, CA))

    3,295,317,803 - Number of Dollar Bills required to cover length of Route 80 (1,138,672 * 2,894 miles)

    3.3 Billion Dollar Bills required to cover Route 80 end to end. (Approximately, rounded up)

    $3.73 Trillion - Federal Budget (estimated)

    1,130 times - 3.73 Trillion divided by 3.3 Billion. Federal Budget would cover length of Route 80 1,130 times!!

    .0043 - Thickness of a dollar bill

    4.86 inches - A stack of 1,130 Dollar Bills is 4.86 inches tall (.0043 * 1,130)

    Conclusion: Length of Route 80 (Sea-to-Shining-Sea) can be covered with a stack of Dollar Bills 4.86 inches tall. Each stack of bills is $1,130.


  14. Dan:

    As a former journalist who tried hard to get facts right but didn't always succeed (perfection is impossible), this seems like an egregious error and I can't believe it actually got published. It should have had better fact checking.

  15. Dan:

    I don't think the average person has any idea how big a number a trillion is, which might explain why the editors thought 10,000 miles for 3.73 trillion dollar bills sounded like a lot. It's not.

    To explain big numbers to my kids,I like to frame it in regards to space travel. Voyager 1, which is one of the fastest spacecraft ever launched, currently travels about one million miles a day as it heads out of the solar system and into interstellar space (it's moving along at approximately 40,000 MPH).

    To travel one billion miles at that same speed will take the craft a lot longer than a day. It will take nearly three years. That tells you the difference between a million and a billion.

    And to travel a trillion miles at that speed? Voyager will cover that distance in 2,700 years!

    (Even then it will only have covered about 1/26 of the distance between the sun and the next-nearest star system, Alpha Centauri. It's comparable to finishing the first mile of a marathon. Kind of puts the kibosh on mankind ever reaching the stars).

  16. peter:

    Its not that much it only stretches 0.000018421 parsecs. Or maybe its a lot because it would stretch out over 334 billions smoots and while Oliver might enjoy the money I don't believe he would want to be used to measure it :)