Congressional Budget Office

Another Year Older and a Trillion in Debt

“The U.S. government’s budget deficit is projected to reach $1.02 trillion in 2020, according to a report released Tuesday by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, as the federal government continues to spend much more than it collects in tax revenue.” Washington Post 1/28/2020

I can define a light year, but I can’t comprehend what it really means. I know it’s a measure of distance that is “light years” beyond what I can grasp from my experience (pardon the pun). My inability to grasp a light year is of little consequence in my daily life. Sure, I know it is in one sense a phenomenal distance, while at the same time a trivial distance when we read the part of the universe we can observe is just over 45 billion light years in all directions.

While I can live with an incomplete understanding of light years, should I have the same fuzziness when I read the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate that the U.S. government budget deficit for 2020 will likely top $1 TRILLION? Do I, as a concerned citizen, need to have a grasp of what $1 trillion is? I know it’s a one followed by 12 zeros, making it a very large number especially when it comes to money. However, when the government racks up a trillion-dollar debt in one year should I view it as an inflation-adjusted version of former Senator Everett Dirksen’s famous quip, “A billion here, and a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money” or is a $1 trillion debt real money all by itself?

In my attempt to be an informed citizen, I decided to deepen my understanding of what a trillion dollars is. In this quest I’ve come up with several approaches. The first is a thought experiment of multiplying by 1,000. It starts by multiplying $1 by 1,000 to get $1,000. A stack of a thousand one-dollar bills is about 4.3 inches tall. I can envision a stack of 1,000 one-dollar bills. Now multiply the stack by 1,000, giving you a million dollars. For me it is a little more difficult to envision a thousand stacks with 1,000 dollars in each stack, but I can work on it. Given the size of a dollar (6.14” wide by 2.61” high by 0.0043” thick), it would take almost 25 airline carry-on bags to hold a million one-dollar bills. It’s clear the checked baggage fees would start to eat into the stash.

Now move on from a million to a billion dollars by multiplying by 1,000 yet again, requiring 25,000 carry-on bags. It gets harder to envision all the time, but I wouldn’t turn down 25,000 bags full of one-dollar bills, but now take the final step to reaching a trillion dollars and multiply by 1,000 again, now requiring 25,000,000 bags! Imagine the number of relatives that would come out of the woodwork if they found out you had a trillion dollars. By the way, if you wanted to transport the 25,000,000 bags of dollars you would need 614 Boeing 747–400 Large Cargo Freighters (AKA Dreamlifter), which is Boeing’s largest. Unfortunately, Boeing only constructed four of these planes exclusively for in-house use. They carry large component parts such as wing assemblies for construction of their 787 Dreamliner. I guess you would have to make multiple trips, especially since as of 2018 there were only 12.4 billion dollar bills in circulation (1.24% of what is needed to have the whole trillion dollar stash in dollar bills).

OK, are we any closer to understanding what a $1 trillion debt is? I don’t think so either. So, on to the second attempt — how much debt is that per U.S. resident? In February 2020 the country had 329 million residents plus about a mid-sized city more, 329,306,600 to be exact. The estimated added government debt per person the U.S. will take on in 2020 is a little over $3,000. Now, is the concept of a $1 trillion debt getting any clearer? Are you ready to dig into your pocket and pull out $3,000 for every member of your family to fund the 2020 addition to the debt?

Now for one last comparison. The size of the U.S. economy in 2019 as measured by Gross Domestic Product was $21.429 trillion. The projected trillion-dollar debt increase is a little over 4.6% of the size of our economy. Of course, it has to be added to the already existing debt which is already about 8 percent bigger than our economy. However, we can brag that at least we’re not Japan with a debt that is more than double its GDP.

I could go on with these comparisons by calculating how many times you could circle the globe if you laid a trillion dollars end to end (about 3,900 times) or how long it would take if you walked the distance at a 20 minute/mile pace (more than you are going to live), but I won’t.

Now I’m ready to read about the U.S. government’s debt burden in an intelligent way. I hope you can too. If so, we can all cry together.

Retired economist and newbie news satirist predominantly using raw beginners “haiku” that do little justice to this elegant Japanese poetry form.

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