What's A Trillion, Grandpa?
(Updated January, 2004)
Also, please see:
Trillions, Billions & Millions
I have three bright and precocious grandchildren. They ask countless questions, and utter delightful witticisms. One question they've never asked may have more impact on their adult lives, though, than any they've asked. I don't recall any of them asking, "What's a trillion, Grandpa?" Maybe they should.
See, when they graduate from college I've got a really crummy present waiting for them. I plan to hand over their share of a gargantuan national debt. It's over $7 trillion today, and growing at an astronomical rate. By the time they get their little gift, it could easily amount to $15 trillion—or more.
They've never agreed to accept that burden, but they have no choice. When they join the work force, they'll assume an awesome responsibility. At the moment, if the U. S. national debt is divided equally among all employed people in the country, we each owe about $50,000. That could be well over $100,000 when my grandchildren begin their working lives. If they marry, and their spouses work, it doubles for them.
Happy graduation, kids. This will make your college loans seem less daunting.
How Big Is A Trillion?
If my grandchildren were to ask me that question, I'd have a hard time answering them. It's not that I don't know the numbers. After all, I got A's in Calculus when I was in college. A trillion is 1,000 x 1,000 x 1,000 x 1,000. But the number is meaningless to me. I've never experienced anything that can tell me how big it is. I certainly can't imagine what a trillion dollars is worth.
About the biggest amount of money I can visualize is $100,000. I know what a $100,000 house looks like. I've seen lots of them. And, I suppose I can comprehend a million dollars. If I picture a city block with ten houses, each worth $100,000, that's a million dollars.
So how many blocks would I have to fill with these $100,000 houses to make a trillion dollars. Would it be the whole neighborhood? The city? More?
If someone built block after block of $100,000 houses, ten houses to a block, ten blocks to a mile—that's a hundred blocks per square mile—how big would the project be when it reached a trillion dollars in value? It would be 10,000 square miles—that's bigger than the State of Maryland.
And how about the size of the national debt? How much land would we have to cover with $100,000 houses to equal the $7 trillion debt? Picture Missouri. The 275 miles from St. Louis to Kansas City—covered with houses. The 325 miles from the Arkansas line to the Iowa line—covered with houses. All the farms, all the lakes, all the rivers—covered with $100,000 houses. That's what 7 trillion dollars looks like.
I still can't comprehend it.
The Wreckage of the Past
My grandchildren should be pretty angry about their pending graduation present. A close look at all the numbers reveals an aggravating fact. The annual U. S. deficits since the early1990s have actually been lower than the interest we pay on the national debt. If we didn't have a debt today, we would have budget surpluses. (We've had declining deficits, or none at all, in most years since 1993, but the debt has risen more than 50% in that time.) If the next generation of working adults could just have an even start, they could run this government on a pay-as-they-go basis. But they can't do that. First, they have to pay off trillions of dollars of our mistakes.
And how can they ever hope to do it? My grandchildren will probably have college loans to pay off; it will work like this. They'll work, making more money than it costs them to live. Then they'll have to make payments on their debt. Their monthly payments will have to be greater than the monthly interest. Gradually, they will succeed—if they always make more than they spend, and if they continue to make payments. That's the only way they'll be able to get out of their personal college debt.
It's also the only way the U. S. can get out of debt. We have to completely eliminate deficits. Then we have to begin making regular payments, greater than the interest we pay on the debt. As with any debt, we can pay it off faster if we make bigger payments. Here's what your share of the repayment looks like.
Payoff of the National Debt
Monthly payment, per working American
To pay the debt in 15 yrs, your monthly payment = $442.70
To pay the debt in 30 yrs, your monthly payment = $322.08
To pay the debt in 50 yrs, your monthly payment = $287.81
To pay the debt in 100 yrs, your monthly payment = $277.31
(The figures above were correct in January, 2004. Payoff amounts are controlled by interest rates, and the interest figures can vary widely month-to-month; see the National Debt Numbers at a Glance page for the most recent payoff figures. Remember, these numbers might be higher or lower next month, but they are rising over the long term.)
Everybody wants to pay less in taxes, but now is not the time to realize that goal. We need to pay enough more in taxes to eliminate the deficit, and begin retiring the debt. If we don't pay that higher burden now, we'll each have to come up with $450, maybe $500, or more per month in just a few years. How will we do that? (Each working person's payoff amount increases at a rate of about $1.50 per month—$18 per year.)
America has had a national debt for most of its history. It's sometimes been large, and sometimes small, but it has never been like this, except in the worst war years. It is eating at the heart of our nation. It won't be ignored.
What's a trillion? It's about the scariest thing I can think of. Makes Tyrannosaurus Rex look like a kitten.
Also, please see:
Trillions, Billions & Millions