Visualization: What's a Billion, Here and There?

With all this talk of billion-dollar bailout programs, one information designer creates a chart that puts it all in context.

David McCandless, an information designer based in London, was flummoxed by all the talk being bandied about, over government programs running into the billions. So he created a chart of the entire mess. As he writes over at Information is Beautiful:

This image arose out of a frustration with the reporting of billion dollar amounts in the media. That is, they're reported as self-evident facts, when, in fact, they're mind-boggling and near incomprehensible without context. But they can start to be understood visually and relatively, IMHO.

Below is a resized version of the full-size chart, that you'll want to click on for legibility. It's an excellent visual supplement to the news we're swimming in everyday.

But there is one huge caveat that should be made about the data: The graph is dominated by $7.8 trillion supposedly spent by the U.S. government on bailouts in the present financial crisis. But that number isn't like the others—as The New York Times reports, that massive figure is actually a hypothetical estimate of what the government might be on the hook for if the financial system actually collapses. The actual budgeted cost of the bailout program is around $2 trillion—which is obviously enormous, but is actually a trillion less than we've spent on the Iraq war.

billion dollar chart

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  • Ash Sangamneheri

    How come governments can spend more on wars than on education and healthcare?

  • Ilya Bodner

    These large numbers are just here to scare us. Very few people really understand it, and this article just proves this fact yet again. The public needs to think that we are going to have the cushion, but no one actually wants to spend it - we are banking on the fact that "it'll take care of itself". Small business owners are the ones that are hurt the most, alternative financing seems to be the only option - not bailout money.


    Ilya Bodner
    Small Business Owner
    Initial Underwriting Group