Fact Check

Billions and Billions

How much is a billion.

Published Oct 9, 2003

Claim:   List demonstrates the concept of "a billion."

Status:   Multiple — see below.

Example:   [Collected via e-mail, 2003]

A billion is a difficult number to comprehend, but one advertising agency did a good job of putting that figure into perspective in one of its releases:

A billion seconds ago it was 1959.

A billion minutes ago Jesus was alive.

A billion hours ago our ancestors were living in the Stone Age.

A billion dollars ago was only 8 hours and 20 minutes, at the rate Washington spends it.

Origins:   We

don't know the specific origins of this piece illustrating the enormousness represented by the number one billion, but it's reasonably accurate as far as the arithmetic goes. We collected the example quoted above and first published this article back in 2003, and rather than updating this page annually, we've chosen to keep our comments relative to that year.

We have to start out by noting that the definition of "billion" is not standardized. In some places and usages, a billion is a one followed by nine zeros, or one thousand million; in other cases, a billion is a one followed by twelve zeros, or one million million. In the U.S., the common usage of "billion" refers to a one followed by nine zeros (or 1,000,000,000), so that's the standard we employ here.

  • A billion seconds: One billion seconds is about 31.7 years, so going back in time a billion seconds would put us in 1972. (The discrepancy in the version cited above, which puts the year at 1959, might have come about because the example we collected was compiled or last updated in 1990.)
  • A billion minutes: One billion minutes is approximately 1901 years, so travelling back to a time one billion minutes ago would land us in the year A.D. 102. This date is about seventy years too late to encompass the life of Jesus according to traditional accounts. (The discrepancy of several decades might be the result of someone's faulty arithmetic or historical knowledge, or it could be an indication that this piece originated back in the 1930s.)
  • A billion hours: One billion hours ago represents a time a bit over 114,000 years in the past, an era generally classified as the Lower Paleolithic era, or the "Old Stone Age."
  • A billion days ago: Some versions of this piece include the line "A billion days ago no-one walked on the earth on two feet." A billion days is approximately 2.74 million years; the era defined by that time period is generally estimated to be about when the first species of the genus Homo appeared in Africa, having diverged from the Australopithecines.
  • A billion dollars ago: If the U.S. federal government were spending a billion dollars every 8 hours and 20 minutes, its total yearly expenditure would be a little more than $1 trillion. In the last few years, the budgets approved by Congress have been about double that amount, or $2 trillion per year.

After Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in August 2005, someone politicized the "billions" piece by adding the following coda to it:

Some interesting statistics

While this thought is still fresh in our brain, let's take a look at New Orleans — It'samazing what you can learn with some simple division ...

Louisiana Senator, Mary Landrieu (D) is presently asking the Congress for $250 BILLION to rebuild New Orleans.

Interesting number, what does it mean?

Well, if you are one of 484,674 residents of New Orleans (every man, woman, child), you each get $516,528.

Or, if you have one of the 188,251 homes in New Orleans, your home gets $1,329,787

Or, if you are a family of four, your family gets $2,066,012.

Are all your calculators broken in Washington, D.C.?

Maybe all of us should just flood their houses, then we can all be on the "big easy" street for the rest of our lives, and forget about working, and paying taxes and all that useless stuff!

In September 2005, the two U.S. Senators from Louisiana, Mary Landrieu (a Democrat) and David Vitter (a Republican), jointly introduced the Hurricane Katrina Disaster Relief and Economic Recovery Act in Congress, a bill that sought a total of $250 billion in federal funds to provide long-term relief and assistance to the people of Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. Of course, the legislation didn't propose that the entire amount be spent on New Orleans alone, or that the money literally be distributed to New Orleans residents — the point of the coda was to provide some perspective on how much $250 billion is by presenting it relative to the number of people in the area hardest hit by the hurricane.

In any case, the arithmetic is a little bit off. Assuming the population and home figures provided to be correct, dividing $250 billion equally among all New Orleans residents would mean:

  • Each person would receive $515,810.
  • The money/home ratio would be $1,328,014.
  • A family of four would take in an aggregate total of $2,063,240.

Last updated:   22 April 2008

  Sources Sources:

    Grunwald, Michael and Susan B. Glasser.   "Louisiana Goes After Federal Billions."

    The Washington Post.   26 September 2005   (p. A1).

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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