The Billion Dollar Gram

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

Billions spent on this. Billions spent on that. What does it all look like? Hopefully The Billion Dollar Gram will help.

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.

(This is one of the first images I created for my book. So a lot of the figures are from 2006/07. I’ve also visually cheated slightly here and there to make everything fit)

I hoping this will be a “living image” that I’ll keep updating all the time. So if you find any interesting, juicy or eye-popping billions, please comment below (with a source). Let’s see how high we can make this image!

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Show Comments ( )

  • Axel J. Rose

    It says in the sources about renewable energy that the $515G would be required every year until 2030, so shouldn’t the true cost should be a tad over 20 times that?

  • Randall Mason

    What about the buying power of children. A 2006 study said that children influence about $670 billion/year:

    The quote is: Children (under 12) and teens influence parental purchases totaling over $130-670 billion a year.
    And it sources a few different articles if you click on the sources button.

  • Dave

    Bit unfair to include Bill Gates without including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
    It has an endowment of US$35.1 billion as of October 1, 2008.
    On June 25, 2006, Warren Buffett (then the world’s richest person, estimated worth of US$62 billion as of April 16, 2008) pledged to give the foundation approximately 10 million Berkshire Hathaway Class B shares spread over multiple years through annual contributions, worth approximately US$30 billion in 2006.

    • david

      Thanks Dave. I’ll include some charity and philanthropy on the next ver.

  • Dave

    Plenty of other big charitable foundaions too:

  • Statto

    It might be nice to give the whole thing a light grey background of gross World product (about $70tn).

    That might make it a bit large, though…but making it drill-down-able would be cool anyway, so how’s about a more AJAXy, zoomable version?

  • Lilly

    How do healthcare costs in US compare? At present that comparison, especially wrt bailouts would be good.

  • Cliff Kuang

    Great work, David. This is an excellent tool! But one major shortcoming in the data you site is the figure regarding the size of the “estimated cost of the financial crisis to the U.S. Federal Government.” As the NY Times reports here, that $7 trillion figure that you cite is actually not a real “cost” but rather a hypothetical projection of what the governments financial obligations might be in a worst-case scenario–basically, what it would be on the hook for, given how it collaterialized its debts, in the event of a financial crisis that would make the Great Depression look like a sneeze. The actually budgeted “cost” is around $2 trillion–and that might be far less, depending on how the economy recovers. So far, the actual funds that have gone out the door are somewhere south of that.

    Point being: It’s kind of unfair to compare a theoretical number with actual budget budget numbers.

    • david

      Thanks Cliff. Good point. I will amend in the next version.

  • Anca

    This is really neat. Can I print it out and post it my shop window, with proper credit, of course?

  • Praveen Paritosh

    This is lovely. It will be great if the squares linked to document(s) on the web that supported that number. That way, the billion dollar gram becomes a starting point to understanding some of the most expensive things. Surely the cost of “feeding and educated every child for five years” is a result of a careful analysis, and a reference to it will be truly helpful.

  • ben

    Some of the areas don’t seem to be scaled properly–Bill Gates vs. Facebook, and Big Tobacco vs. Internet Porn stand out as areas that look more or less the same size despite large differences in the numbers. Is the visual intended to be to scale?

    • david

      Is it to scale for the most part. I allowed myself some slight visual cheating to make some sections tessellate. The Bill Gates vs Facebook & big Tobacco need to rejinked. Thanks for pointing it out.

  • Website Templates

    This chart really gives us insight into where our priorities lie. Thanks for sharing + taking your time out to graph this. Incredible diagram.

  • thehard

    That’s a great work. And if you keep updating it, that’s even greater.

    I hope you keep adding data from here and there. That would make a really cool poster.

  • Jason

    The Iraq war year X costs should probably be inside the “Iraq war estimated total” costs. Otherwise you have the same dollars represented twice.

  • drew

    Some of the rectangle sizes look wrong. Compare “Walmart Profits” to “OPEC Climate Change Fund”. Compare Google to Facebook.

  • mystified

    Why not display numbers in correct proportionality? Facebook at $15, for example, clearly occupies more than 1/3 the space of the $46 that Bill Gates occupies.

    Why editorialize, and display costs without non-cost repercussions? Expenses are not all fungible; some things *must* be spent; the idea that you could convert the entire world to solar simply doesn’t wash, because there isn’t enough solar energy in most places to furnish sustainable levels of electricity.

    There are other problems but you should consider a stricter set of guidelines in preparing your visualization, then it would really be impressive.

    Nice idea though…

  • taj

    There are too many scale problems with this, IMHO. If you are trying to convey difference in size by area, things 2x-3x out of scale (porn vs tobacco for example) just ruin the value of the graph.

  • Jordan Harper

    Brilliant work. As has already been pointed out, there’s obviously a scale issue on a couple of squares (I was interested comparing the tobacco industry to African debt) but it’s a really great piece of work for the most part.

  • Dave

    Brilliant. Very cool idea, and I agree with many of the helpful comments above.

    Thoughts: the Mars mission looks increasingly like it will sink in a mire of “other priorities”, so it might be better to remove TomorrowLand projects and replace it with NASA’s annual operations budget; and/or the cost of the ISS, plus maybe the Apollo Program (in adjusted dollars), just for perspective.

  • Chris

    At $465B to feed and educate all children for 5 years doesn’t seem right.

    $465B / 2.2B children / 5 years / 365 days/year = 11.5 cents/day.

  • http://nowebsite Frank


    First of all it is a great diagramm. It makes one think, wonder and it gives a little hope, too.
    How did you get the number for hooking the world up on solar and renewable energy?
    I am a student of mechanics and chemnistry. And if I show the diagramm to support renewable energy it would be helpfull if not essential to know how you calculated that number.


  • bevan

    Great idea, I did some calculations with the ‘feed every child in the world for 5 years’ stat…

    and I would like to know where you came up with those numbers.

    I like what you are doing, I do wish it was a little more interactive maybe or a little prettier, I’m not sure which one.



  • yonatron

    Why is Internet Porn categorized as “Illin’”, rather than “Earning”? Certainly there are folks in that business who aren’t totally honest and ones who are getting exploited. But I imagine you can find such cases in any industry of that size. Certainly, though, the level of violence and corruption pales in comparison to what happens in your other 2 examples of Illin’.

    (Generally, I like the site in concept and aesthetically, and am about to add yet another RSS feed to my reader.)

  • evgen

    Please, please, PLEASE learn to normalize your data. You are often comparing apples to oranges to the color green. Pretty graphs are nice, but if the fundamental data they are based on is incorrect, erroneous, insufficiently defined as to make comparison within the graph impossible than all you are doing is practicing artful deception. Looking back over the various features charts on this site it seems that this is not a one-off occurrence. Perhaps we should all chip in to send you a copy of “How to Lie with Charts” or similar text?

  • Harry

    At $135 billion in today’s dollars (source: ), the Apollo program might be worth including.

  • Steve Jones

    Whilst the presentation of the numbers if interesting, frankly the basic data is rubbish and highly misleading. Firstly I should add that I’m no supporter of such things as the war in Iraq, but there are fundamental problems with these numbers.

    Firstly what we have here is a mish-mash of annual rates of expenditure and total costs. If you are going to compare annual charitable donations of US citizens with the cost of the war in Iraq for heaven’s sake, use the same units. Express both in a cost per year, or over a fixed period.

    Similarly there are all sorts of other dubious stats in this. There is the one about $465bn being enough to feed and educate every child on Earth for five years. I’m not quite sure how you define child, but if I do a back of an envelope calculation and take the number of children on Earth as being about 2bn, then that’s a more $46 per year per child to feed and educate them. There is also no inidication of PPP or other adjustments have been done on these numbers. Of course the expenditure on educating and feeding children in the US alone will dwarf that figure of $465bn over 5 years. Now it might well be that the $465bn is the additional expenditure required to bring all children in the world up to minimal levels of education and feeding, but that’s not the impressions given by this chart. What would be more impressive is if you had both in and over a unit of time that allowed for a meaningfuil comparison.

    So the treatment of financial stats is sloppy and misleading – making appropriate comparisons is fine, but this one is riddled with misrepresentations and distortions and looks more like propoganda than any serious analysis.

  • Oregonian

    1. It’s hard to share this as accurate, when you spell ‘defense’ incorrectly (if my assumption you’re US of origin is correct.)

    2. You state the total and possible costs of current economic crisis (my word), but you do not share the current cost of the way in Iraq? Why not? Why have a predicted cost without the current one, too?

  • Maarten

    Iraq War 06 and 07 were $100-130B, but the Iraq War total is $3000B. It seems that one of these is not like the others, as 6 years of war at the annual figures would add up to about $1000B.

    This diagram is a fantastic conversation starter. It’d be great if footnotes listed specific (!) sources so the conversation can get started by drilling down on the sources of the figures.

  • medlii

    This graphic is an awesome idea, I really like the concept!

    But it’s a little confusing that some things are in annual costs while others should be converted for easy comparison- like “feed and educate every child on earth for 5 years” category.

    There is also another category that overlaps that one and should be moved or eliminated- “Feed every child in the world for a year.”

    Some of the categories need a more accurate description- “US Defense Budget,” “OPEC Earnings,” and “Walmart Revenues”- are those per year or in total or what?

    Figure out the costs for the Iraq war for 2003-present and divide up the “Iraq war estimated total” box into each year. Or eliminate the annual costs altogether.

    Citing your sources would be good too! Just some suggestions for ya!

  • Tom in Raleigh

    I think some of your charts may violate, if you might use the term, some of Ed Tufte’s prescriptions for data clarity. But in this case, I think he would quite like what you’ve done here. The most striking ones, I find, are the comparisons between US and Russian and Chinese defense spending (what is the US buying?), and the difference between WalMart’s revenues and profits, which shows just how thin Walmart’s margins are, and why they must be so huge to generate huge profits. I like this a lot.

  • Johanna MacDonald

    I have to be honest: this scared the shit outta me.

  • rand

    I’m wondering about the 300 billion (it seems the numbers are supposed to be in billions right?) given to charity each year by US residents. That seems a little over the top. Just a little, unless there is something I’m missing about the US general citizenry.

  • Martin

    The billion dollar gram. Gram of what? Cocaine? Marijuana? Platinum? What are you talking about?

  • jon

    You may have seen this:

    Would obviously require some fact-checking.

  • Clifford Morehead

    Are historical amounts (the Marshall Plan, for example) inflation adjusted?

    • david

      @clifford yes

  • Steven Pill

    Amerca’s national debt.
    …Perhaps you could scale down your gram and drop it on top of the national debt,
    just to get some perspective?

    I would love to see it!!


    Steven Pill

    • david

      good idea – thanks. I’ll try it.

  • Matthias

    Where do you get $3 trillion for the Iraq war? The best estimates I can find (a combination of all the Iraq supplementary bills) puts the number at a little south of $1 trillion, something around $800 billion.

  • Sean Weigold Ferguso

    Facebook is not currently valuated by anyone at 15 billion dollars…

  • Hugh Brown

    If there are 1.0 billion children (my guess) and it costs $54 billion to feed them for a year (your figure), then on average, you can feed a child for a year for $54. Let’s say there are 500 million children — then it’s $108 / year. Does this seem wildly unlikely to you? You could blow the entire budget on the USA’s 30 million children under 14.

  • Frank

    “According to the 2004 “Green Book” of the House Ways and Means Committee, Medicare expenditures from the American government were $256.8 billion in fiscal year 2002. Beneficiary premiums are highly subsidized, and net outlays for the program, accounting for the premiums paid by subscribers, were $230.9 billion.

    Medicare spending is growing steadily in both absolute terms and as a percentage of the federal budget. Total Medicare spending reached $440 billion for fiscal year 2007, or 16% of all federal spending. ”

    Medicare’s Wiki article. I don’t know if you would like to use more current data though…

  • Joe

    Why would you leave out the trillions spent on medicare/medicaid? Would it dwarf everything else that badly?

  • simon

    wonderful! but those 15 on facebook are earnings?

  • Ineta Goodwin

    The image is interesting while unbalanced – visualizing annual amounts (ex. the transition to solar and other renewables and charitable contributions) is not visually a fair comparison to estimated cumulative totals (iraq war) – not apples to apples – it gives the impression (whether intentional or not) that some things are being played up and others played down.

  • christine

    striking. thank you. ^_^

  • Katherine

    So if America donated to a manned mission to Mars instead of anything else, we would be able to get someone there soonish? Please please please?

    I won’t complain about advertising adding to the cost of anything again, it certainly doesn’t look that big now that you put it in context. Unless someone starts up an organisation to convince people that a manned mission to Mars is more important than advertising.

  • Mat Brady

    This website is such an amazing find. And I love this image. Really, I do. However…


    For example: If you look at “$206 Big Tobacco Settlement” (in yellow) just above the “$520 OPEC Earnings” (in blue) you can see that you can easily fit over three of these “$206″ blocks into the “$520″ block. This means that 3 x $206= $618+ …which does not equal $520. This is an obvious error of scale in regards to the size of blocks to the figures they represent.

    I love the idea of this chart and I think it’s instructive, inspiring, and even a little depressing- in a good way- but please go by the figures more than you do the size of the blocks as a measurement. It seems like this chart was created to be a close-enough approximation of block sizes in order to make this information beautiful, more than it is a perfectly accurate (but slightly less beautiful) box chart.

    I do love the idea though. An astounding achievement. Well done to the creators. :)

  • glory
  • alexandre van de san

    this would be a great tool to visualize big budgets. I can see it being used in an online resource as a google maps on where is tax money being spent, in which you can always zoom in to see exactly how it is..

  • Will

    The cost of the Iraq war in previous years is a subset of the total cost of the Iraq war
    following the logic else where in the ‘gram’ these areas should be inside the total cost
    I am not sympathetic to any war – but misrepresenting the data undermines its power.

    Brilliant and powerful thing BTW – well done.

  • erik

    I’m very disappointed in this. I found your site through one of those “what’s popular on the web” links and was very excited to see many of your comparisons. People just don’t get it when it comes to large amounts of data and large dollar amounts. It appeared that you were ready to put all of that into a clean perspective for us to let it all sink in. Then, as at least one other commenter noticed, your boxes for Bill Gates vs Facebook and Big Tobacco vs Internet Porn are very clearly not to scale. Granted, you do state in the accompanying text that you “…also visually cheated slightly here and there to make everything fit.” But seeing such discrepancies makes me question the scale of everything on your chart, and by extension everything on the entire site. This trend follows you through several of your images (your atomic bombs post ignores most of the damage done by atomic bombs and boldly claims we could only destroy 1% of humanity with atomic bombs; and your mobile phones post uses the same disproportionate visual aids (circle sizes) to compare data as you use here). On top of it all, when called out you throw a comment out like “Oh… I’ll have to change that.” Unfortunately, as you are no doubt aware, by the time you are 50 comments into a thread countless thousands of viewers have already processed your data, some misunderstanding it due to your errors, and they’ll never be back to see you say “oops.” So instead of applauding you for sharing clear and useful information, I now have to guard myself and treat your data as an optical illusion first, and useful data second.

  • Davide Ronchi

    This is awesome! Could you provide a .svg/.eps version so I can translate it in Italian?