Visualizing U.S. GDP
What does $25.7 trillion even look like?
The most recent estimate (third quarter of 2022) for U.S. GDP, which is the value of all final goods and services produced within the borders of the United States in the last year, was to $25.7 trillion. That’s a BIG number. So big that most of us, including me, don’t really have a good understanding of how big. We usually have a good grasp on thousands, tens of thousands or even hundres of thousands of dollars, but once you get to millions, billions and trillions we kind of just throw up our hands and say “It’s just really freaking big!”
But I think it’s important that we try to improve our intuitive understanding of how big “trillions” are So, below is the process I go through with my students in my economics courses to try and help them understand just how big $25.7 trillion is.
What does $100 look like?
Well, duh. A $100 bill is something we can relate to and visualize. Imagine finding one of these puppys in the pocket of a pair of pants you buried in the back of your closet. That would be a very nice surprise!
What does $10,000 look like?
Visualizing $10,000 is bit harder. Imagine that $100 bill from above, only now we have a stack of 100 of them. The would be just 1/2” tall. A few small stacks of these could make life much easier. Maybe not buy you a house, but you wouldn’t have to worry about your grocery budget for quite some time.
What does $1 million look like?
Next, imagine those stacks of $10,000 from above but fill a backpack with them. What you could fit in just one backpack could permenently change your life or would be enough to buy most houses outright (unless you’re in San Francisco or NYC).
What does $100 million look like?
Now imagine a pallet of life-changing backpacks from above. You could permanently change the life of your 100 closest friends. You’re gonna need a forklift to move it around (but you can probably afford to buy a factory that makes forklifts with this).
What does $1 billion look like?
To get to $1 billion, we have to take TEN of those pallets from above. This is enough to permanently change the life of 1,000 families, or probably enough to allow you to live your entire life in complete luxury without a single care ever again. Another way to measure this is that we need 430 MORE of these pallets to get what Elon Musk paid for Twitter (he overpaid).
What does $1 trillion look like?
Now, as the politicans say, we’re getting to real money. For $1 trillion you’re going to need to get a warehouse just to keep all your double-high pallets full of stacks of life changing amounts of money. Our little image of a dude in a red shirt for scale is now barely visible on the bottom left.
What does $25.7 trillion look like?
Put together almost 26 warehouses packed with pallets full of stacks of life changing amounts of money and we finally get to the amount of U.S. GDP. Can you even make out the image of a dude in a red shirt for scale? I checked and on my screen he’s drawn with exactly SEVEN PIXELS.
I hope the sequence of images above helps by starting to give you a grasp on the size of $25.7 trillion, or the amount of income (or value of output) produced in the United States in the last twelve months.
P.S. If we divided U.S. GDP equally among everyone in the nation, we each would have made about $77,000 per person last year.
Can I get an image of all of these visualizations together?
Click on the image below to expand it