The presidential election is beginning to become more real, as the candidates are being forced to deal with more serious questions – such as the federal budget. This is the time when the federal debt becomes an issue and people begin to speak of trillions. This is interesting, because most people know that a trillion is a large number, but have no “feel” for it. That is because most people can live happily avoiding large quantities, and tend to do so because their lives are complicated enough. We shorthand such quantities (using trillion, or tera instead of “a thousand thousand thousand thousand”), but even that does not capture the exponential nature of powers of ten. A short and clever movie was made by Charles Eames, a famous designer, in 1977, and was entitled Powers of Ten. It is now not viewed as much as it used to be, but perhaps should be if we are going to deal with numbers such as a trillion. If you have never seen it, it is here on You Tube.
Around election time, the U.S. national debt comes up (federal debt in 2015 was about $19,009,230,758,000, or 19 trillion dollars, but of course there is state debt, individual debt, and so on). Politicians like to blame the other party and other causes for this, but the government traditionally overspends. But how much should we worry about this? Do we really know what 19 trillion is? Techies like me would approximate it as 1.9x1013 dollars, but even that is hard to get a feeling for. If we break that down to on the order of $60,000 or so per person in the U.S., we can think about it more clearly, but it isn’t like our personal debt, because governments can print money and sell bonds, but we can’t.
I think most of us can get our heads around a million, since many houses now cost that much, and after all, a million is a thousand thousands. But a billion is more difficult. Bill Gates has a net worth of about 82 billion dollars, but to appreciate that, it is necessary to put it into a form that is more understandable. For instance, the world’s population is about seven billion, so he could give 11 or 12 dollars to everyone on earth, and he and his family could still have five billion to cover their personal expenses. But if he has it invested in interests that return him 5% per year, he is making over 40 million a year, so he could keep his capital growing and live quite well.
But 19 trillion? It is a very big number. Let’s say I had a job which required me to type 19 trillion x’s on my computer. Using my trusty smart phone, I see that I can type this many—xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx or about 70 in ten seconds. That is or on the order of 500 in a minute if I practiced a lot. That’s believable, since when I took a typing course in high school I got up to 100 words a minute (piano player). According to the Guiness book of records, Barbara Blackburn is the champ at 212 words a minute, and typing test words average about five letters each. But I obviously couldn’t keep up this pace either physically or mentally for a whole day, so let’s imagine that with training I could put in the equivalent of six hours a day without going mad, and in the process type 60x500, or 30,000 x’s per hour, or 45 million per year (5 day week, 2 week vacation). That means that even a million is a big number. But a billion is a thousand million, so to type a billion x’s would take I,000,000,000 divided by 45,000,000, or a bit over 22 years. So 19 trillion? How about four hundred and eighteen thousand years or so? Of course if we put 100,000 people on the job, they could finish in about four and a half years. (I may have slipped up on the arithmetic here, but you get the idea)
But how much should we care about the national debt? A lot. A simple discussion of the components of the national debt is here. It is a complex thing, ranging from repayment of bonds owned by individuals, companies, and governments inside and outside of the U.S. as well as intergovernmental loans, and other such complexities. and we have to cover the interest on much of it. Unlike individuals and companies, governments can not go bankrupt (as a few U. S cities and foreign countries have) and easily recover, if at all. Bankruptcy of the U .S. is unthinkable, since the U.S. as it is would no longer exist. Eventually the bill must be covered.
Focusing in on the election, many groups are calculating the effects on the national debt of the economic plans being proposed by the candidates. One of the less biased groups is called the Tax Foundation, and their findings are here. A more politically liberal group is the Brookings Institution, and their conclusions are here. They are saying that in ten years, Trump’s plan could add over ten trillion dollars to the national debt, and perhaps up to 80 % (over 15 trillion).
Trump is, of course, telling us that his plan will benefit us all at no cost, the increase in expenses and decrease in tax income will be overcome by the tremendous savings he will make in the costs of government and the surge in economic activity that will result. Are we going to continue to believe that one? Hopefully not, although we have accepted similar arguments in the past. We seem to be eternal suckers for supply-side economics.
But too many of us will focus on what the candidates say, rather than what they will do. And we will not pay as much attention as we should to the numbers , because they are so large they have little meaning compared to the incomes and expenses we are used to.
I will talk a bit more about magnitudes in my next post, because our ability to avoid thinking deeply about very large (and small) quantities is being overwhelmed by the necessity of doing so, whether elections are forthcoming or not.