The National Debt is Beyond Our Comprehension

Apparently, the national debt, currently at more than $14 trillion, is not high enough.  President Obama and the Democrats in Congress want to raise the debt ceiling so that we can increase the national debt.  So far as I can discern, their logic must be that when you are in a deep, deep hole, the way to get out is to dig the hole deeper. 

The Obama administration argues that unless the debt ceiling is raised, the government will be unable to pay its bills, and that would result in catastrophic consequences.  They may well be right, and I am not categorically opposed to raising the debt ceiling.

However, I do believe that we need to get a handle on the nation's financial situation.  There seems to be near universal agreement that we are going to run deficits of more than $1 trillion every year for the foreseeable future.  So long as the government spends more each year than it takes in, it will be increasing the national debt.  And no matter how the Democrats and Republicans in Congress resolve their budget differences, there will be a deficit and the debt will continue to grow.

A large part of the problem is that numbers as large as the debt and the deficit are simply too big for us to comprehend.  There is simply no way that we can visualize numbers that big.  Small numbers have meaning to us.  Big numbers do not.  We can grasp $3.89 for a gallon of gasoline, and can relate to increases of a few cents.  But as we move into the thousands and above, even a few dollars become meaningless. 

We can probably get our minds around a million dollars, but beyond that the numbers become mere abstractions.  They simply cease to be real.  They are not real, because we really cannot visualize them in a meaningful way.  We may have gotten used to hearing about billions, but trillions are really beyond our mental grasp.  How many of us, for example, can state the number of zeros in a trillion without having to count them?  There are twelve.  Now try to mentally visualize the number one trillion.  Can you do it?  Can you really see a "1" followed by twelve zeros in your mind?  I can visualize a billion, but that is only nine zeros: three groups of three.  It takes some effort to mentally see four groups of three zeros.

Suppose someone was going to give you $1 every second of every minute, of every hour, of every day without stopping.  How long would it take them to give you $1 trillion?  Well, let's see.  There are 60 seconds in a minute, so that is $60 every minute.  Then there are 60 minutes in every hour, so that means we would receive $3,600 every hour.  Wow!  Even my plumber doesn't charge that much.  In a single day, therefore, you would receive $86,400.  Most people don't get that much in a year. 

Since there are 365¼ days in a year, at the rate of $1 per second the pile of dollar bills would amount to only $31,557,600.  Now we are talking real money.  That is a lottery jackpot most of us would love to win.  But that is still just a number in the low millions.

So, at a dollar a second how long would we have to wait before we could see the pile grow to $1 trillion?  Are you ready for the answer?  Drum roll, please.  It would take over 31,688 years.  Even at $10 per second they would still have to have started handing you the money more than a thousand years before the birth of Christ!  And even at $100 per second none of us could live long enough to get it all.

At $100 per second we are still only talking about $8,640,000 a day.  So in a year you would have accumulated only a little over $3 billion.  It will take more than 316 years to reach $1 trillion. 

A trillion dollars is so much money that you and I would probably not be able to spend that much for ourselves unless we bought a small country somewhere.  Most of us would have trouble trying to spend a billion dollars, and a trillion is a thousand billion.  So, if the government wants to reduce the deficit by a trillion dollars, it would have to do the equivalent of cutting a billion dollars from each of one thousand government programs. 

You could reduce the government's defense expenditures to zero, and you would still not be cutting a trillion dollars from the budget. 

The frightening truth is that Congress cannot easily cut $1 trillion from the deficit.  The reality is that if you gave a new congressman on his first day on the job a copy of the budget, and told him to cut $10,000 from the budget every second of every day nonstop, his term in Congress would be up before he had cut out $1 trillion.

The numbers are too big, because the federal government is too big.

Howard Lurie is a retired law professor from Villanova University, School of Law.  Contact him at

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