Putting the Pile of United States Debt into Perspective

With all of the talk from Washington this week about debt and balanced budgets, I thought I’d take an updated look at the debt and try to put the size of the problem into a frame of reference that we can relate to.
The latest figures from the TreasuryDirect website show the sovereign debt of the United States standing at $13,840,966,239,053.15.  That number is so large that most of us have no way to comprehend the magnitude.  Here are some ways to put the number into perspective.
Let’s start with the dimensions of our paper currency.  A dollar bill measures 2.6 inches by 6.14 inches and is 0.0043 inches thick.  It would take 232.56 one dollar bills stacked up to measure one full inch in thickness.
We need to stack up 13,840,966,239,053 one dollar bills.  Let’s round that up to 13,841,000,000 one dollar bills for simplicity’s sake since the debt will soon reach that amount.  With 232.56 one dollar bills required to create a stack one inch high, the 13.84 trillion one dollar bills would create a stack 59,516,000,000 inches high.  That’s 4,959,600,000 feet or 939,330 miles.
Let’s put the 939,330 miles into perspective.  The circumference of the earth (the distance around the earth’s equator) is 24,902.4 miles.  The stack of one dollar bills making up the federal debt of the United States would encircle the earth 37.72 times.  The average distance to the moon is 238,857 miles (the distance varies because the moon has an elliptical orbit around the earth).  The stack of one dollar bills required to pay off the debt of the United States would reach to the moon and back nearly twice (3.93 one way trips).
Let’s take a very quick look at the annual interest required to keep investors interested in purchasing more of our debt.  For fiscal 2010, the interest paid on the debt was $413,954,825,362.17.  That works out to a stack of one dollar bills 1,780,000,000 inches thick which converts to 148,330,000 feet or 28,093 miles.  As noted above, one year’s worth of interest payments on the federal debt would require a stack of one dollar bills that would get us around the world 1.13 times.
It all makes that stack of bills that you have in your wallet look kind of small, doesn’t it?
By the way, the People’s Bank of China announced that China’s foreign reserves reached $2.6483 trillion at the end of September 2010.  China would need to accumulate 5.2 times that amount of money to pay off the United States federal government debt.
Sorry for depressing you with reality.

Click HERE to read more of Glen Allen’s columns.

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