Federal debt – to infinity and beyond

BusinessWeek has a cartoon (p.16) about the US Federal Debt which now tops out at $7.8 trillion dollars. Since most people have trouble imaging such high numbers it depicts a tower of one dollar bills placed on top of each other. One foot of dollar bills stacked up would be worth $1,800. If you stacked $7.8 trillion dollar bills on top of one another the pile would reach nearly 821,000 miles into space. That’s 3.5 times the distance from the earth to the moon. (The moon is 239,000 miles above the earth).

I’m reminded of another way of thinking about the Federal Debt, which I first read in an essay by Bill Bryson. To paraphrase him here, imagine you are in a room full of those one dollar bills. To earn one all you need do is to write your name on it, and it’s yours to keep. Say it takes you five seconds to sign your name on each bill. That’s a rather impressive $720 per hour job. But let’s make it easier. Say you only need to write your initials on each bill in order to keep it. And let’s say you’re pretty fast and it only takes you one second. Now you’re earning a substantial $3,600 per hour.

In a standard eight-hour day you are clocking $28,800. But let’s say that you are superhuman and don’t need any rest, or time for breaks, so can work constantly 24 hours a day, every second initialing and earning a dollar. After a whole week, you will have earned $604,800 – not bad.

After 11.5 days you’ll have earned your first million (that’s by about the morning of Thursday May 12). But let’s say you don’t stop there, you carry on. You want to be a billionaire, so you keep initialing away, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

How long will it take to become a billionaire? Well sadly, it’s going to take 31.7 years. So towards the end of 2036 you can relax and look at the billion-dollar pile of loot.

But let’s get back to the US Federal Debt. You want to press on to clear this debt. How long would that take? At the rate you are going, a dollar per second, it will take you 31,709 years – not to clear the debt, but just to reach your first trillion (that’s $1,000,000,000,000). To finish the job, you’ll have to stick at it for 247,336 years.

And that doesn’t even factor in inflation, an increase in the size of the debt or the cost of all those pens.