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February 17, 2013
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Publisher's Notebook: Here's how to wrap your head around $16 trillion of debt

Unless they are on the front of a winning lottery ticket, numbers generally give me a headache.

They told me in school that unless I knew the definition of pi I would end up homeless and worthless. Fortunately, I have survived more than four decades in the workplace without ever having to calculate the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter on a flat plane surface. It never came up once in a job interview.

And so it should come as no surprise that I can’t wrap my mind around a number such as 16 trillion and how the size of our nation’s gross debt has reached that gross proportion. I felt a similar awe when we put a man on the moon.

Last week the Internet world was all atwitter after a well-respected surgeon used a National Prayer Breakfast speech to question some of our current national policies, including a policy that seems to ignore the elephant in the room, which happens to come with a $16 TRILLION price tag. What I do know about a number that large is that it includes more zeroes than you will find slumped over bar stools inside a pub on a Monday morning.

In his prayer breakfast speech — attended by the president of the United States of America — Dr. Ben Carson tried to put a number the size of 16 trillion into terms most of us might understand.

“You think that’s a lot of money?” he asked. “I’ll tell you what. Count one number per second, which you can’t do because once you get to a thousand it will take longer than a second, but…one number per second. You know how long it will take to count to 16 trillion?”

And the answer caused my math-challenged mind to explode.

“507,000 years,” the doctor answered, “more than half a million years to get there.”

I had to sit down for that one. “Did he just say it would take me 507 THOUSAND YEARS to count from one to 16 trillion?”

Yes, he did, and I did the math. Roughly 16 TRILLION seconds equals more than 500,000 years, give or take a couple hundred million seconds. Just so you know, there are 31,536,000 seconds in a calendar year.

That’s how large that debt is and probably why most of us just shrug when we hear it anymore. After all, many of us can’t balance a checkbook and a good chunk of our population couldn’t make change at the cash register if the new registers didn’t tell them how much money to give back.

And before we start pointing fingers, this mountain of debt has been passed along from president to president for several terms, so Republicans and Democrats share the blame. In fact, despite his fascination with interns, Bill Clinton was the last president to reduce the debt as a percentage of the U.S. economy. The nation’s gross debt almost doubled from Clinton to G.W. Bush ($5.6 trillion to $10.6 trillion) and has grown by more than $6 trillion more under Obama, according to a recent Washington Post story.

The percentage of gross debt has now exceeded the national economy (it was 70 percent under Bush and currently stands at more than 105 percent), according to that same Post story.

In his speech, the doctor from Johns Hopkins wondered why our leaders haven’t been capable of running our nation like they might their own family.

“Here’s a parable,” he said. “A family falls on hard times. Dad loses his job, or is demoted to part-time work. He has five children. He comes to the five children and he says we’re going to have to reduce your allowance. Well, they’re not happy about it but, he said, except for John and Susan. They’re special. They get to keep their allowance. In fact, we’ll give them more.”

Susan and John represent the special interest groups, a body of lobbyists that has become the fourth branch of government.

The Post’s attempt to put context on our $16.5 TRILLION debt blames mandatory programs, such as Social Security and Medicare. In fact, it says, debt owed to entitlement programs is now almost as large as the national economy.

For the record, I don’t see Social Security or Medicare as an “entitlement.” My employers and I have been paying into that fund since my first paycheck, so as far as I’m concerned it’s mine. I can’t help it if the government borrowed that money for other purposes and can’t pay it back.

Until then, we’ll have to try our best to comprehend this mountain of debt that will one day bury us. And if the 507,000-year example still doesn’t provide context, try this:

If we broke down $16 trillion into $1 bills they would stack to the moon four times. It would also, according to one U.S. senator, cover every square inch of highways, roads, parking lots and pavement in the U.S.

Wrap your mind around that a few million seconds.

Jeff Ackerman is publisher of The News-Review. He can be reached at 541-957-4263 or

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The News-Review Updated Feb 17, 2013 12:04AM Published Feb 17, 2013 12:04AM Copyright 2013 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.