Making National Debt Relatable

A game has been going around some social media relating large quantities, like a million or billion, to time. This is to get people to understand how large really huge numbers really can be. I support that.

Here’s a more-relatable version. If you earn $20 an hour, that’s a little over half a cent per second. If you earn $60 an hour, that’s 1.7 cents per second. Not bad, right?

If I gave you a whole dollar every single second, you’d get $86,400 a day. You’d be a millionaire in a little over 11-1/2 days. Cool! At the same rate of a buck per second, it would take you 31.7 years (11,574 days) to be a billionaire. That’s a lucrative career, taking my money at a single a second. If I had enough… 🙂 I don’t, so I’d go essentially a billion dollars in debt to do you such benevolent favor. Who in their right minds will loan me a billion bucks for that? Show me that loan officer, and I’ll show you a sucker…and a guy who is about to bankrupt his employer.

Now instead of money I’m spending that I don’t have and would have to borrow, let’s look at the amount of money our federal government borrows and spends.

If I paid off the U.S. national debt ($27.77585 trillion and counting at 2 p.m. CST yesterday) at the very same pace of a dollar every second, it would take 880,164 years. That’s about 440 times the amount of time elapsed since Jesus was crucified. Put another way: if you donated $86,400 every day to pay off today’s national debt, it would take over 880,000 years.

Pretend you got a great job netting $100,000 a year pocket money, and donated it all to the national debt, because you’re a generous citizen that way. You’d pay the debt in over 277 million years. That’s between 3.5 and 4 million human lifetimes, back to back. It’s also over 4 times farther into the future than the time elapsed since the end of the Cretaceous, when dinosaurs perished.

By then, whole continents will slide over the face of the earth, pivot this way or that, and merge, while others split in two and set sail across oceans vast. Entire new mountain ranges will buckle skyward, some maybe as high as the Himalayas, while the modern ones get worn down to remnant, stumpy nubs, rendering today’s Rockies of Wyoming and Colorado a high, rolling plain broken by sporadic hills. Parts of what’s now the Mediterranean seafloor will be rock faces covered in glacial ice, 18,000 feet above sea level. The Yellowstone hotspot could be cracking the craton and blasting scalding water skyward — near Hudson Bay. Baja long will have docked somewhere near Anchorage, and you’ll be able to see not only Russia from there, but perhaps Sydney too. All that world geology reworked, before you paid down the national debt at a hundred Gs a year!

Let’s look instead at those with wealth beyond our reasonable comprehension. Jerry Jones is worth $8.4 billion. We’d need to confiscate all the assets of 3,300 Jerry Joneses to pay off the national debt. Alas, there aren’t that many of his financial stature, even if you wanted to crank your taxation engines full-throttle communist and pillage their last dimes.

Elon Musk just passed Jeff Bezos and became the world’s richest person. His net worth is $188 billion. To pay off our national debt, 148 Elon Musks and even more Jeff Bezoses would need to give all their assets away to the treasury today.

What about us? If every taxpayer in the U.S. was billed the national debt, called in today, we’d each owe almost a quarter of a million dollars. We’re the bankers here, and we’re being played for suckers.

Keep track of our governmental and societal debt burden on the National Debt Clock, and have a lovely week!


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