National DebtSeventeen trillion, seven hundred nine billion, three hundred twenty two million, six hundred ninety one thousand, three hundred three dollars and six cents (and we can’t leave off those six pennies). What is this number? The short answer is that is the total amount of debt owed by the United States government as of August 21. This number is updated daily and can be found at this site, http://www.treasurydirect.gov/NP/debt/current.

Is this something to be concerned about? Is a debt crisis looming on the horizon that we should all be preparing for? These are some questions I want to explore further in a future blog post. However, I want to start with a more basic issue. This number is so far beyond what anybody has experience with that it can be hard to grasp. Before looking at the dangers posed by the national debt, I want to discuss a more basic question: what is a trillion?

It’s easy to say that a trillion is a 1 followed by 12 zeros. However, that just treats an important question in a trivial way. Our ordinary experience doesn’t prepare us to understand the magnitude of how big this number is. To begin to get a sense of the enormity of a trillion and the magnitude of the problems our society is facing, the following analogies may help.

  • Start with counting one number per second. At that rate, it would take over 31,000 years to count to 1 trillion. To get to the number representing the current debt would take 558,000 years at that rate!
  • 1 trillion dollars could cover the entire NASA budget (even if adjusted for inflation) since it was founded in 1958 and still have 210 billion dollars left over.
  • 1 trillion miles is the distance covered by flying to the moon and back 2 million times.
  • If you taxed (confiscated) all of combined wealth of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett (which is approximately 142 billion dollars or 142,000,000,000) to pay off this debt, how much of a difference would that make? The shocking answer is that if this happened, the combined wealth of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett would cover less than 1% of this number.

So what, why is this important?  Should a debt crisis factor into a family’s preparation plans?  Can’t the government just print money to avoid this problem?  I will discuss these questions further in a future blog post.  For now, what’s important to remember is that the US (and many other countries) have dug themselves into such a deep hole that a day of reckoning is likely coming.  This is not a critique of any one political party or politician; it’s simply a math issue.  However, preparing now for what can potentially develop into a very serious problem in the future is always the best and prudent course of action to take.

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