National Debt Explained: A Trillion Debt Definition That You Can Understand

And that’s hard to do when dealing with you earthlings. Your elementary terrestrial minds simply can’t deal with large numbers. So when presented with debt in the trillions, your brain (ha!) freezes. In fact, my experience is that most earthlings are very poor at math. For example, how much is 2+2?

OK, you got lucky.

But still, I think you need to have the National Debt explained at you. And I’m not going to use those crazy national debt clocks either. If you can’t fathom what a trillion is, then watching a “clock” rolling into astronomical territory won’t do any good either

Numbers throughout cultures

Being on this rock for a while, I had the “privilege” of observing how all your earthling languages deal with numbers. It seems that all the languages have words for one, two and many. But when it comes to three, some of you earthlings don’t even have a word for it. That’s right. Some of you Earthlings get stuck at three. Not a promising sign for species, is it?

Also, various experiments show that there is a limit to how many objects you can put in short term memory. That number is looming at the not very impressive 7. And this is the same mind that is expected to deal with trillion-debt situations?

Trillion Debt Fun!

Let’s say we have 16.373 trillion dollar bills[1] magically lined up end to end (more on how they get lined up later). How far would it go? Well if those dollar bills were laid end to end, it would extend 1,586,651,199 and one half miles. That’s almost the distance from Earth to Uranus. But you earthlings don’t travel to Uranus regularly, so this may be as meaningless as a debt clock.

How about light? Well it would take about 2 hours and 19 minutes for light to travel a 16.3 trillion dollar row of dollars. That’s the time it would take to watch the movie The Man Who Fell to Earth or The Age of Innocence, a film my girlfriend Linda likes. But again, this is beyond human experience. People don’t viscerally feel how light works since it appears instantaneous to them. Let’s try another tactic.

Something Even an Earthling Can Understand

The problem with these thought experiments is that the theoretical bills magically appear all lined up in a row. But what kind of effort would it take to get them all lined up? Well, earthlings walk every day. In fact, humans still think it’s a big deal to have mastered the bipedal thing. Linda thinks this earthling “bipedal pride” is “cute.” I of course think no such thing.

So let’s imagine an earthling lining up his trillion dollar stash of dollar bills one after the other. This person would be walking at 3 miles an hour. He would never sleep or eat. He would be a dollar-lining-up-machine, hour after hour, day after day, placing one dollar bill after another. So how long would this take?

Try 60,333 years!

Sixty thousand years ago, civilization (ha again!) was 50,000 years in the future. Humans, although technically Homo sapiens, did not yet display any of the sentient qualities that make you so much fun at parties. No agriculture, no domesticated animals, no Facebook. Nada.

But I think I have failed again. For creatures who are counting the minutes to the next meal, 60,333 years is beyond their understanding. I’m afraid that you earthlings will never know the enormity of the debt you’ve created. But not knowing hasn’t stopped you guys before, has it?


[1] U.S. debt during mid-December, 2012.

Bookmark the permalink.