Saturday, July 16, 2011

America's Sovereign Debt Issue - Putting the $14.3 trillion debt into perspective

I realize that I've posted an item similar to this several months ago but I thought that, considering the activity in Washington over the past two weeks, it was time to revisit exactly how big the $14.3 trillion debt really is now that it's been page one news for weeks.  Most of us have some difficulty even imagining what a million dollars would look like but when a number, particularly one with a dollar sign in front of it, gets into the 14 digit range, we simply have no frame of reference that will tell us what it really means not to mention understanding just how critical the situation is.

Here's the most recent debt to the penny number from the United States Department of the Treasury Treasury Direct website:

Let me type that out: that's $14,342,953,885,641.98.  I find it fascinating how there are 14 digits ahead of the decimal point but that the Treasury still knows (or at least thinks that it knows) that they have to tack 98 cents onto the $14.3 trillion figure to maintain complete accuracy.  I guess a bean counter somewhere is trying their best to keep the ledger balanced.

Let's take a stack of $100 bills, the largest denomination that most of us usually deal with on a reasonably regular basis.  Each bill is 0.0043 inches thick, 2.61 inches wide and 6.14 inches long and weighs about 1 gram.  I'm going to focus on the thickness of each $100 bill.  It would take 232.6 $100 bills to give you a pile that is one inch thick and if you had a pile that thick, you'd be holding $23,256 in your hand.  Let's go back to the debt number; if we took the entire $14.343 trillion debt, converted it into $100 bills, the stack of bills would be 616,740,000 inches high or 51,395,000 feet high or 9734 miles high.  The one-way distance between New York City and Los Angeles is 2462 miles.  This means that the stack of $100 bills that make up the current sovereign federal debt of the United States would reach from New York City to Los Angeles 3.95 times, nearly 2 round trips.  If the $100 bills were laid end to end rather than on top of each other, they would reach 73.39 billion inches or 6.116 billion feet or 1.158 million miles.  That would take us around the earth at the equator 4.65 times.  That is truly a lot of paper.

Now, lets's see what $14.343 trillion will buy us.

1.) At a list price of $829 for a top-of-the-line 64 GB iPad 2 with Wi-Fi and 3G (my favourite toy), you could buy 1.73 billion units and supply every man, woman and child in the United States with 55 iPads. (using a population of 311,776,483 from the United States Census Bureau).  Perhaps then I wouldn't have to share mine with my wife!

2.) At a list price of $72,085, the $14.343 trillion could purchase 198,970,000 base model 2011 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid SUVs (note that I chose the hybrid model because we are all so environmentally conscious!), supplying each household in the United States with 1.77 Escalades.  If you prefer non-domestic vehicles, at a list price of $53,425, each household in the United States would have 2.4 2011 BMW 535i Sedans.

3.) Let's say you want to get away for the weekend.  How about a night in a deluxe one bedroom suite at the Four Seasons in Manhattan with a view of the city?  At $4750 per night, the $14.343 trillion would buy 9 nights accommodation for every man, woman and child in the United States with enough left over to pay for plane tickets and meals.

4.) At Best Buys regular everyday low price of $4299.98, the $14.343 trillion would buy 10 Panasonic Viera 65 inch Plasma HD televisions for every man, woman and child in the United States with enough left over to pay the sales taxes.  

I hope that these examples help all of us better understand the size of the issue facing us.  The very thought that Congress and the President are playing partisan politics around the issue of having to increase the soon-to-be-crippling debt level of the United States should frighten everyone around the world, especially since the United States is the nation driving the world's economy.  All we need to do is look back at 2008 to see what happened when the day of reckoning arrived for the mortgage backed securities market in the U.S. to see what impact one nation has on the world's economy.  While the Democrats and Republicans banter about cutting the deficit, you'll notice that discussions involving paying back the debt never seem to take place.  Apparently, those that we elect have no compunction about saddling our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren with a burden that we cannot even imagine.


  1. Quite an amusing take on the situation. Scary, but amusing. We up here in Canada have had surpluses with certain governments which were used to pay down our national debt and I felt this was a good thing. But obviously since 2008 like everybody else in the world that hasn't been the case and I'm thinking we are losing that payback mentality. I'm a firm believer that governments can go bust; it just takes longer. Yes, they can tax. Yes, they have an economic model which is different from our own individual finances but I think there are similarities. Certainly there has to be a limit as to what debt anybody or any organisation or any government can carry.

  2. Honestly, I never liked comparisons like that because it's not a good comparison. It makes EVERY number Government works with a large one. If the Government saved 1 million, that's 1206 ipads, which sounds pretty nice from our standpoint. However, 1 million for the government is about as useful as a penny is to us.

    Personally, I prefer analogies. 1 million to the Governmentthat earns 2 trillion in revenue (I hear... Ineed official numbers) is similar to a person making 1 million and saving a dollar. That's why folks roll their eyes over '1 million in savings'.

    using my Probably-not-accurate number, 14 trillion to a 2 trillion budget is similar to a person making $40k a year and owing $280k in debt. If you want smaller numbers, a person making minimum wage and works full time earns 15,080k a year (7.25/hr, 40 hr/wk, 52 wks, yes I ). Now imagine that person owing $105,560.

    That's basically a house purchase being paid off by a person that works as a fry cook. Is it payable? Well, that fry cook would have to pay $293 every month for 30 years, when he makes $1160 a month, assuming no interest on it. Even with interest, it's ...doable.

    The problem: we spend 3 trillion of that 2 trillion budget. Thus the fry cook makes $1160 a month and spends $1740 a month.

    And THAT is how you demonstrate how we stand as a country.

  3. I like the fry cook analogy as you can have as much debt as you want as long as you can pay it back within a reasonable period of time. What people are not taking into account is the rate of interest. If interest rates go up then the debt model becomes very unsustainable. The problem is that so many countries are holding US dollars that they don't want the US to default. Interesting times ahead. Watch for both Gold and Silver to go higher - Silver seems very undervalued!

  4. William - I couldn't agree more with the Old Fart.

    OneLifeLiveIt - look at my posting An Interesting Look at Interest on the Debt for a description of what happens to the payments on the debt when interest rates rise.

    Anonymous - All I'm trying to show people is that a trillion is a huge number, something that we really don't have a firm grasp of.

  5. Here is another view.

    The average person earns about $50,000 per year. There are a bit over 130 million people currently working in the US (it would be closer to 140 million if we had lower unemployment)

    That means that if every one of those 130+ million worked for 2 years and gave every penny of their gross income to the Federal Govt (no groceries, no rent/mortgage, no gas, no clothes, and sorry States and Municipalities, nothing for you), that would almost be enough to pay the national debt.

    Or let's come at it slightly differently. The Fed govt collects between 16-19% of GDP as taxes each year. If they used it all to pay down the debt and didn't spend one penny of it -- no Soc Sec, no Medicare, no bureaucracies or bureaucrats, no foreign aid, no military, no govt pensions, no Congressional salaries or expense accounts, etc; Nothing, nada, zero -- it would take 7 years to pay off the debt (5.5 years with no interest, 7 with 3% interest).

  6. Thanks for putting the US debt issue into such clear perspective - pasted it on my fb profile for others to see!

  7. Anon put it pretty well there. To compare, said 50k person could pay off an average house mortgage in 2-4 years.


    That I definitely understand and you did it well. I get picky because I found people love to take random stats and then try to use it in the wrong place. You didn't, but I can just see someone taking your calculations and using it to state "OMG! that $30 million they spent to pay the unemployed cost 36 THOUSAND Ipads! That's why we are in debt!!"

    I get just as fussy about the "Real" unemployment rate. I've literally seen people use 2010's U-6 % and compare it to 1932's U-3 and say "We're as bad as the Great Depression!" Others aren't as bad: they just compare the U-6 of today with 2005's U-3 and go "They are faking the numbers! We're much worse than they say!"

    It doesn't make me angry, but it does make me cry.

  8. Let's put this in perspective a different way. The government took in approximately 2.4T in tax receipts, while spending 3.8T, all while having a 14.3T debt. If you divide each of those numbers by 10 Million, you can think of it this way.

    The way government spends, it's like you have a very good job and make $240,000 per year, yet spend over your head at a rate of $380,000 per year, AND have debt on your credit cards, mortgage, car loan, etc. of $1,430,000. How are you EVER going to pay off your debt???

    Any spending cuts being proposed only affect deficit spending in future years, and don't touch the debt. All it means is that Congress is proposing to spend less badly. Without any sort of Balanced Budget Amendment, the debt ceiling will have to be raised 2-3 times per a president's term. So within the 10 year CBO scoring that we always hear about, the debt ceiling will have to be raised 5-8 times in the projected 10 year savings window.

    And NO ONE is talking about the true long term financial liabilities (SS, Medicare/Medicaid, retirement benefits,etc) which is something like $54 Trillion or some other crazy unfathomable number.

  9. If you are going to use numbers, try to get the math right. If the paper trail of the debt is 1.158 million miles and the Earth's circumference at the equator is about 24,901 miles, then it would be about 46.5 times rather than 4.65.

  10. A stack of bills nearly 10 miles high; or 16 kilometers. That would get in the way of commercial aircraft. Inconvenient. I would hesitate having politicians seeing these numbers. Solution: Thinner, smaller bills.

  11. Do We Really Need All These People In The Senate, In Congress, In The House Of Representives, ETC. This Is A Waste Of Money That Our Country Is Paying These Ya-Hoys. Elimanate These People, Cut Foreign Aide, And Mind Are Own Business Like Staying Out Of War. Another Cut Could Come From Welfare. I Know People That Don't Work Because They Would Get Less Welfare That Way. Bullshit!!!!!! Make Them Work Like The Rest Of Use. Also, Cut All This Spending On Home Health Cost. They Are Makeing A Killing Billing Medicare And Other Insurance Companies What They Do. It Must Stop Now!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!But I'm Afraid Fellow Americans That It Is To Late. To Many People Have There Hands In Everything. Crooked People Are Makieing It Impossable For Things To Work Out Like They Should. God Bless Us ALL!

  12. To Many Big Wigs, And Crooked People That Are Stealing From Are Country, And Us Others. Nothing Will Change With These People. We Can Only Stand And Watch Them Fill There Pockets Full Of Money, While The Rest Of Us Suffer. God Help Us!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  13. I dont understand...where were those fiscally responsible people (who are crying now) when Bush raised the debt and debt ceilings (10+ times) all thorough his term? How did the debt get to these levels? Where was the Tea party then? Unpaid wars, benefits for the elderly (to secure votes). When the democrats are left holding the mess, suddenly the republicans shout from the roof-tops about fiscal responsibility. How long will the GOP be allowed to keep playing these political games?

  14. Start now and count to a Trillion..You cant do it. You will be dead before you finnish. Now thats putting it into perspective.

    This is all a lot of fun,
    But there is nothing funny about "Our" debt,
    It has already gone too far. We will NEVER pay this debt off, its impossable.
    Eventually the USA will default, No doubt about it. And when this happens, The millions on Social security and Government workers will not be paying there bills. This Country will close down. There will be mass suicides as well as mass killings for food and needed suplies. I guess then those left will start this process all over again. "Are we having fun yet"

    Even if the States pull out of the Union, They will also eventually be forced into default.
    Everyone born in the USA after WW1 have been living the best life man has ever had, But now we and our children have to pay for it.
    Amazing that the House and Senators will still get there checks.

  15. Or, if you think in terms of time....
    one million seconds = 11.7 days
    one billion seconds = 31.7 years
    one trillion seconds = 31,700 years.

  16. > It would take 232.6 $100 bills to give you a pile that is one inch thick and if you had a pile that thick, you'd be holding $23,256 in your hand.

    OH?!? Try $23,360

  17. We all need to be mindful of the fact that when we say the government is in debt to foreign countries to the tune of $14.3 trillion, it is really WE the people, who owe all that money. WE have been sending jobs out of the country, because it is the rest of the world that owes us a living, and WE have collectively spent more than we have a substantial margin. 

    We can convince ourselves that WE can raise more revenue by taxing a greater portion of the wealth that is in our midst. Good luck with that!

    Broadening the revenue base (taxes) requires that we rebuild our decimated middle class, and how does that start? At the bottom of the wage ladder, the same as it did in China, India, Brazil and Pakistan, and is happening in the emerging economies of developing nations.

    Encourage (or force by means of tax sanctions) the larger businesses in America to bring the jobs they shipped overseas back to this continent. Stop the war on the middle class.