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Incomprehensible Sums
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I remember when a billion used to be a number so big nobody could comprehend it, though it is still a massive number.
According to 1 billion seconds equals 31.7 years. A billion seconds have elapsed since 1981.
One billion minutes is equal to 1,901 years - which would take us back, almost, to the time Jesus Christ roamed the Earth.
One billion hours is equal to 114,000 years - which would take us back to the Stone Age.
In more recent times, our inability to comprehend the sheer magnitude of 1 billion has been eclipsed by our inability to comprehend 1 trillion.
One trillion is equal to one thousand billion.
Our federal deficit has been averaging nearly $1 trillion since the collapse of 2008 - causing us to rack up more than $5 trillion in new debt.
In order to cover our nearly $4 trillion annual budget, the U.S. Treasury spends about $1 billion every two hours - accumulating $1 billion in new debt about every eight hours.
ABC’s Jake Tapper tried to simplify these incomprehensible numbers. He compared America’s finances to a typical American’s finances. By removing eight zeros from America’s $3.8 trillion budget, he came up with a sum of $38,000.
Now if you are a retiree, you are probably getting by OK if you are able to spend $38,000 a year - unless your finances are as messed up as America’s.
Though you are spending $38,000 annually, your income is only $29,000 - you are growing your debt by $9,000 every year.
What’s worse is that you already owe nearly $170,000 to creditors. Paying off that amount of debt with $38,000 in income would be hard under any circumstances.
But of course your income is $29,000, not $38,000, so you must borrow about $175 a week to keep up with your expenses.
In other words, the U.S. government is growing our debt by $175 billion a week, which is producing around $1 trillion in new debt every year.
Still not comprehending how much $1 trillion is? Then you’ll like this description by Bill Bryson, one of my favorite authors, from his book “Notes from a Big Country.”
Bryson asks his readers to guess how long it would take to initial and count 1 trillion dollar bills if you worked without stopping.
“If you initialed one dollar bill a second,” writes Bryson, “you would make $1,000 every 17 minutes. After 12 days of non-stop effort you would acquire your first million. Thus, it would take you 120 days to accumulate $10 million, and 1,200 days - something over three years - to reach $100 million. After 31.7 years you would become a billionaire. But not until 31,709.8 years elapsed would you count your trillionth dollar bill.”
We all understand that very large numbers are OK so long as they add up. So long as we have trillions of dollars coming in to the government to balance out the trillions of dollars we have going out, we should be OK.
But that is the frightening part. We are not even close to covering our spending. Our economy has not recovered enough to generate the growth and tax revenue we need to pay our bills.
Piling on new entitlement programs and lots of new regulations, rules and mandates certainly isn’t helping the recovery.
And so we limp along racking up debt and our leaders are doing little to address this incredible challenge. In fact, we have racked up more than $11 trillion in new debt since George W. Bush assumed office in 2002. We are the proud owners of nearly $17 trillion in debt, a startlingly incomprehensible sum.
Yet too few people worry about it. Who can blame them? After all, $17 trillion is only 17,000 billion dollars.
Tom Purcell, author of “Misadventures of a 1970’s Childhood” and “Comical Sense: A Lone Humorist Takes on a World Gone Nutty!” is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist and is nationally syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc. Send comments to Tom at