Reading the Big Numbers


Watched a painful episode of Glenn Beck last night… Beck and Charles Payne were discussing the deficit, and were struggling to read large financial numbers. They were confusing billion with trillions. No great surprise – no doubt they had a producer yelling in their ears that they had to go to a commercial break. Regardless, it’s easy to get confused by humungus numbers, and many people make elementary mistakes when reading them, talking about them, or just reading them. So here’s the skinny…

  • We all understand 100… One dollar boils down to one hundred pennies. One hundred dollars equates to 100 one-dollar bills. So far, so good.
  • 1,000 is nothing more than ten piles each of 100. And so it goes… 10,000 is just the collection of 10 piles of 1,000 each, or 100 piles of 100 items. Anyone who’s ever drawn a paycheck, bought a car or a house can identify with that.
  • But here is where it gets fun. Look at the number 123,456… That’s one hundred and twenty three thousand, four hundred and fifty six. One way to come to grips with the ever increasing numbers is to start reading the collections of three digits separated by the commas. Be sure to read from the right to the left. So the “456” can be thought of as the “hundreds”, and the “123” are the “thousands”. (Sure, just take 123,000 and add 456 and you get 123,456.)
  • But what happens when you reach 999,999 (nine hundred and ninety nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety nine) and then add 1?
  • Welcome to 1,000,000, or 1,000 piles each of 1,000 each. To read that from right to left using the commas as signposts, that breaks down to “hundreds”, “thousands”, and “millions” and in this case there’s only one “million”.
  • Now what? Billions, that’s what! Read that thousands of millions. To utter such numbers consider 999,888,123,456…  That’s nine hundred and ninety nine billion, eight hundred and eighty eight million, one hundred and twenty three thousand, four hundred and fifty six. (Again, reading the collections of three digits separated by the commas from the right to the left we’re looking at: “hundreds”, “thousands”, “millions”, and “billions”.) Keep in mind that a billion is 1,000 groups of 1,000,000.
  • And then there’s the doozy – trillions. This is where Beck and Payne blew it… They were confusing billions with trillions. To handle this, a person needs to read the “packs” right to left as “hundreds”, “thousands”, “millions”, “billions”, and “trillions”. Ugh. Example… Our GDP is roughly 14 trillion dollars. that’s $14,000,000,000,000…  (No wonder Beck and Payne got confused.) So… 123,456,789,012,345 is one hundred and twenty three trillion, four hundred and fifty six billion, seven hundred and eighty nine million, twelve thousand, and three hundred and forty five.

The trick is to count the commas…

  • No commas = hundreds
  • 1 comma = thousands
  • 2 commas = millions
  • 3 commas = billions
  • 4 commas = trillions
  • And so on, but with any luck, there won’t be any quadrillions!

Alan Speakman


5 Responses to Reading the Big Numbers

  1. I don’t think the problem is that Beck got his billions and trillions mixed up. I think the problem is that the government seems to have forgotten that a trillion actually represents money.

  2. Gerry Ashley says:

    There’s one more rule to keep in mind: In Obamaland, once the number hits 4 commas, just as it automatically becomes “trillions” of dollars, it also automatically becomes the Bush administration’s fault.

  3. joe blowe says:

    The GDP will not be 14 trillion even with the cheat that every electronic transaction in the fake stock market, made in speculation, counts.
    The tax revenue will be about 35% less this year too… about 2.5 trillion.
    No problem when you owe 14 trillion and are on the hook for another 54 trillion.

  4. ntrwriter says:


    Don’t give Beck and his “Fox Business Analyst” Charles Payne a pass on this. I was watching the show and it was absolutely ridiculous that two educated men on a show that reaches millions of viewers every day could make that mistake. Beck, whether you agree with him or not, has been stirring up fear and ratcheting up the heat on Obama even after calling him a racist. If he can’t get his numbers right, what else is he wrong on? Those two should have known their numbers ahead of time. And Charles Payne, my god man you’re on Fox’s Business Channel! You’ve got to be kidding me. I’m not a Beck fan. He distorts the truth and occasionally lies to his viewers outright. Telling the American people that Obama gave $4.5 billion to ACORN is simply not true. Yet he says it to his audience like it’s gospel. Monday nights show just makes him look wrong AND stupid to those who don’t use Fox News as their only source. That was sad. Don’t even try to sugarcoat it. If you’re going to tell the American people how bad things are, and you and some guy who is supposed to know numbers exaggerate the problem by 10 to the 3rd power, you should be reprimanded or – at the very least – go back on your show and apologize for misrepresenting (some call it lying about) the numbers on a previous show. Talk about integrity and honor. He can cry all he wants but it doesn’t matter if he keeps getting caught in half-truths and intellectual bankruptcies.

  5. ntrwriter says:

    PS. I’m not a big fan of Obama’s either. His continuing the policies that got us into this mess make him look foolish and uninformed.

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