Just How Much Is 15 Trillion?

The United States national debt clock recently ticked up over 15 trillion.  Everybody knows a trillion is a lot of money, but it's much more than you probably think.  A trillion is a number so large that the human mind cannot grasp it.  Fifteen trillion, of course, is fifteen times more than that.  It is unimaginably large.  Even our vocabulary cannot describe it.

Some people describe it as a mountain of debt.  Let's start there.  The tallest mountain in the world is Mount Everest, at just over 29,000 feet.  If you stacked up the $15-trillion debt in a big stack, would it be as tall as Mt. Everest?  Yes.  Everest is only about $81 million tall.  The U.S. government spends that much every eleven minutes or so.  To get 15 trillion, you'd need well over 185 thousand stacks as tall as Mt. Everest.  A single stack of $15 trillion would go well past the moon.  Everest wouldn't even be a pebble.  You could say we are under a mountain of debt, but you'd be wrong.  We are under a mountain range of debt.  A mountain range larger than any on earth.  Even attempts at hyperbole come up well short.  Our debt is beyond our vocabulary.

Some people describe it as astronomical.  Is that more accurate?  A one-dollar-bill is 6.14 inches long.  If you lay dollar bills end to end, it would take 10,319 of them to go one mile.  The sun is 93 million miles away from our planet, so let's say you laid dollar bills end to end, from here to the sun.  How many would that be?  Well, it would be a lot, but it wouldn't really put a dent in the debt.  It would be about 960 billion, less than 1/15 of our total debt.  Our government laughs at 960 billion every three months.  We borrow more than that every year.  Next time Ron Paul says our debt is astronomical, you can shake your head and say "if only."  Astronomical accounts for less than 1/15 of our debt.  You'd have to go to the sun with your dollars about 15 times to get our total debt, and you'd better do it in less than three months, or you'll need to tack on an extra trip.

Since there isn't enough room between here and the sun to pay off our debt, we can safely say that we've outspent space.  How about time?  Is there enough time to pay it off?  That's a resounding no.  Not in your lifetime.  Have a look.

There are 86,400 seconds every day.  Let's pay down a dollar every single second of every day for 80 years.  (I am assuming that the next administration will overturn ObamaCare, and you will be allowed to live until you are 80.)  After 80 years, paying back a dollar every second, you will have paid a little over $2.5 billion.

Now, you may think $2.5 billion is a lot of money.  You're right: $2.5 billion is a spectacular amount of money, far more than you can imagine.  If you stack it up in one stack, each dollar lying flat on the other, you'll have a tower of money about 170 miles high.  The international space station would have to adjust its course to avoid crashing into it.  But a 170-mile stack of cash doesn't really faze the federal government.  The U.S. government burns off that much every six hours or so and looks around for more.  So much for that plan.  Bernie Madoff took 20 years to lose $65 million.  You'd be better off investing your money with him than with the government.  Losing 2.5 billion in six hours is indescribably hard to do.  You couldn't do it if you tried.

Just to demonstrate, let's try.  I'll give you a big dump truck full of cash to dump in the Potomac River.  Think you could dump cash at the rate the government spends it?

Let's say your dump truck has a standard 6-foot-wide, 6-foot-deep, and 10-foot-long bucket.  That means it has a volume of 360 cubic feet.  Dollar bills are 0.0043 inches thick, 2.61 inches wide, and 6.14 inches long.  You could fit almost exactly 9 million dollars into this dump truck.  Now, let's say the dump truck drives from the Federal Reserve building in northwest Washington, D.C. and dumps off its load in the Potomac River at the nearest spot.  Let's say it goes in a straight line as the crow flies to avoid traffic.  Let's say you can dump an entire load of cash every five minutes.

How long would it take you to dump 2.5 billion?  An hour?  Two hours?  Could you keep up with the government at 6 hours?  Not by a long shot.  With a dump truck running nonstop dumping cash, it would take you 23 hours to dump out the cash that the government burns every six hours.

Speaking of burning cash, what if we tried that?  How fast can it burn?

The city of Schenzhen, China, is in the process of building the world's largest incinerator, capable of burning 5,000 metric tons (1,000 kilograms) of waste per day.  U.S. dollars weigh one gram each.  Could the world's largest incinerator burn cash as fast as the U.S government does?  Well, there's good news and bad news.  The good news is that we're still beating China at something.  Putting them to shame, really.  Their big, new, state-of-the-art incinerator running at its top theoretical capacity would get lapped by the U.S. government every twelve hours.  Using modern technology, the most advanced destructive machinery in the world cannot burn money as fast as the government spends it.  You can't get rid of money as fast the government does.  It is literally impossible.

But the Schenzhen incinerator isn't the most powerful destructive force ever made by mankind.  The most powerful thing ever made was a bomb named Ivan that the Soviets built in 1961.

Now we're onto something.  Weren't liberals talking about a "nuclear option" during the debt ceiling debate last summer?  What if we took them literally?  What if we nuked the deficit?  Ivan was a 50-megaton nuclear bomb built by the Soviets in 1961 and detonated over the Arctic.  The blast radius was 25 kilometers, meaning it flattened approximately 1,220 square miles (that's slightly bigger than Rhode Island).  It was a devastating bomb that melted rocks 15 miles away from ground zero.  The Soviets said the entire blast radius was as flat and smooth as an ice rink in all directions.

Could Ivan destroy our debt?  Sure...if we let him bring 48 of his friends.  By himself, Ivan would barely leave a mark.  Our debt is so big that you could make a rug the size of Florida out of dollars, and the change left over would be the size of Ivan.

Does anybody honestly believe that this money is ever going to be paid?  Our country has outspent space, time, technology, and language.  It can't be done.  Anyone claiming to have a deficit reduction plan may as well claim to have a cold fusion device.  It's physically impossible.

The Federal Reserve may attempt to print money and inflate the debt away, but it will run into trouble if it tries that.  There aren't enough trees in the world to make that much paper.  Spend it while you can.

T.S. Weidler is the editor of a $1.4-million line of research databases and the sole operator of hermancainfacts.com.  He can be contacted at tsweidler@yahoo.com.

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