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The Breakdown:

What is a billion?

By Eric Johnson

Tuesday's "special" election was at best confusing. Most Californians were too busy scratching their heads in puzzled frustration to bother voting. Our leaders were unable to explain exactly how the state finds itself so deep in the hole--in fact, they didn't seem at all clear on how deep the hole is--we were told at various times that it was either $8 billion, $15 billion or $25 billion. That's a big difference of opinion.

One fundamental problem is the difficulty most of us have understanding the central term: "billion." What is a billion? Journalists use various tricks to make big numbers easier for readers to understand. We'll say that $25 billion is equal to the entire Gross Domestic Product of Holland, which would be helpful if the words "Gross Domestic Product" held any real meaning. Or we'll playfully point out that a billion dollar bills, when stacked on top of one another, would stretch all the way to the moon and back, which is just an utterly useless comparison.

Here's one that works: If you start counting, (one, two, three) using one second per number, it will take you 11.8 days to reach one million. How long does it take to reach one billion seconds? 31.7 years. Hard to believe, but true.

The point? A billion is such a big number, it's almost impossible to comprehend. No wonder our leaders can't figure out how to scrape together 25 of them.

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