How much is $54 trillion, really?


Big numbers do weird things to me; at a certain point, they just blur together. For example, in 1999 the Hubble Space Telescope estimated that there are 125 billion galaxies (125,000,000,000) and 400 billion stars (400,000,000,000). But here is my problem: I would be just as impressed and overwhelmed if I was told there were only 4 billion stars… or even 4 million. I don’t think I can comprehend anything over a million very well. Even the Earth’s population –6.5+ billion– is mind-boggling.

But numbers can be magical, too; I mean, we can use numbers and math to our advantage by relating them to things we can already comprehend. For example, we could conclude that if all the stars were equally divided among every person on Earth, we would each own about 62 stars (that’s 400 / 6.5). And PRESTO… we’ve come one step closer to understanding the magnitude of the universe. Numbers contain powerful truths, and math never lies (if it’s done right).

Where am I going with this, you ask? Well, when I began looking into the US government’s national deficit, and the $54 trillion (that’s $54,000,000,000,00012 zeros!) it owes today, you’ll understand why my brain hurt for a long time. Here–have a look at the official data yourself:

US MAjor Fiscal Exposures

To save my frail brain from exploding, I decided to take that big number and chop it up into small, bite-size pieces. First, I took the more commonly referenced “publicly-held” deficit of only $9 trillion. Then, opening up a spreadsheet, I started by finding out how much weight that deficit represents in solid gold bars. Then I wondered how many solid gold porsches, Statues of Liberty, Empire State Buildings, etc. are figuratively owed.

Spreadsheet of Deficit Comparisons

Here are a couple more interesting charts**. According to the chart below, in 2007, the government collected about $1.2 trillion from income tax, $0.8 trillion from Social Security tax–which it actually borrows from itself to pay other government costs!–and it totaled $2.55 trillion in revenues. It spent $2.7 trillion. That’s -$150 billion/yr, -$400 million/day. (And 2008 is looking much worse, unfortunately):

US Federal Budget in 2007

Here’s another chart showing that, even though the average household only makes $40k/yr, each one owes $450k to the government:

So, if a picture (above) speaks a thousand words, then a video (below) must speak… a trillion, right?? :)

  • The US Debt Crisis – tv news segment (youtube):

  • Joseph Stiglitz [Economic Nobel Prize winner, 2001] (Admittedly a bit dry, but great info about the price of war)

In case you wondered, here are my current thoughts/opinions about all of this:

  • Compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe, according to Einstein… and it’s the least understood principle by our society. That must change somehow.
  • The credit/lending industry makes the rich richer and the poor poorer
  • The huge USA deficit is a much greater threat to Americans today than terrorists are
  • The economy, oil, and the Iraq war are all closely related, both politicaly and economicaly
  • Leaving even so much as a one-trillion-dollar national debt for our children to pay off later on is morally wrong
  • For a sustainable solution, time is not on USA’s side… and the more time passes, the fewer options remain
  • The answer to the deficit problem lies somewhere between way less spending (i.e. no government health care, Obama!) and way more taxes (i.e. no tax cuts, McCain!)
  • Internal government borrowing from Social Security to cover other spending was not a smart long-term idea, since now there is ZIP left for the retiring baby boomer generation
  • Debt to foreign countries inevitably trickles down, influencing political issues on foreign policy
  • We should be demanding that our government leaders discuss this issue in public and private more

By the way, did you know: To pay off the US debt, every star in our universe would only need to pay up $135 dollars. Hmmm… maybe we could make this a “universal” problem! (Sorry, bad pun.)

But by now I hope you see how just magical numbers really are.

BONUS Fun fact: 54 trillion seconds is about 1,870,900 years

** RESOURCE: charts, and some ideas on what you can do about the crisis:

One Response to How much is $54 trillion, really?

  1. Miranda says:

    I can’t believe nobody has commented on your post, steve! I think its great. And you may not remember me, thus thinking its weird that I, of all people would comment, but that’s okay. I’m playing catchup myself, so it was fun to read all of both of yours and betsy’s latest posts. The numbers thing is mind boggling… and I liked the creative comparisons given

    A couple of comments on other posts too: Betsy. You like to dip tuna fish sandwiches in chocolate milk?! that’s gross. :) I’m definitely going to try your pumpkin pancake recipe. Sounds delish… and i’ve recenetly heard a lot about “dinner in a pumpkin,” any thoughts there? I think i’ll have to try it. And I love love love your fall picture- the one at the top of your blog. Its beautiful!!!

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