Tom Purcell, 1/9/2017 [Archive]

A Trillion Reasons US Debt Is Incomprehensible

A Trillion Reasons Why U.S. Debt Is Incomprehensible

By Tom Purcell

Get this: The U.S. Treasury says that America's debt grew by another trillion dollars in 2016.

If you're like me and you find it difficult to grasp how much a trillion really is,, an educational project of the nonprofit Employment Policies Institute, offers a mind-blowing illustration.

"Let's say someone told you to wait for something. If you waited one thousand seconds, it'd only take about seventeen minutes. If you waited one million seconds, you'd have to wait about 11 1 2 days. But if you waited one trillion seconds, you'd have to wait 31,688 years."

Heck, I remember the old days when a billion used to be a number so big nobody could comprehend it.

One billion hours is equal to more than 114,000 years - which would take us back to the Stone Age.

Not long ago, we measured our national debt in billions of dollars. Now we do so in trillions of dollars - numbers that are extremely difficult to comprehend.

Consider: One trillion is equal to 1 thousand billion. If you had $1 trillion in cash, reports, you could buy 282 billion Big Macs, or 3.1 million Ferrari 599 GTBs, or 769 new Yankee Stadiums, or 28,571 flights into space as a tourist, or 66.7 billion copies of Oliver Stone's "Wall Street."

If you had $1 trillion in debt and paid it back at the rate of $10 million a day, it would take you 273 years - on an interest-free loan.

Our federal deficit has been averaging nearly $1 trillion a year since the collapse of 2008 - causing us to rack up around $8 trillion in new debt during President Obama's administration.

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.

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 $1 bills if you worked without stopping.

"If you initialed one dollar per second," writes Bryson, "you would make $1,000 every seventeen minutes.

After 12 days of nonstop effort you would acquire your first $1 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 after 31,709.8 years would you count your trillionth dollar."

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 we haven't been OK.

Regardless of what you think about President-elect Donald Trump and our new, Republican-controlled House and Senate, you'd better hope their policy changes unleash the pent-up economic vitality of our country.

You'd better hope we double Obama's 1.9-percent average growth rate so that we can generate the government receipts we need to pay our debts and meet our obligations.

Hey, our national debt is almost $20 trillion, for goodness' sake - that's 20,000 billion dollars.

If you still can't comprehend how big our debt us, consider this slightly modified illustration from

If the U.S. government printed $1 million bills, "a whole bathtub's worth of them wouldn't equal a trillion dollars." And 20 bathtubs full of $1 million bills still wouldn't be enough to cover our national debt.


©2017 Tom Purcell. Tom Purcell, author of "Misadventures of a 1970's Childhood" and "Wicked Is the Whiskey," a Sean McClanahan mystery novel, both available at, is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist and is nationally syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons Inc. For info on using this column in your publication or website, contact or call (805) 969-2829. Send comments to Tom at

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