How to illustrate U.S. public debt?
April 26, 2011 10:07 AM   Subscribe

How would you illustrate the U.S. public debt of $14 trillion in a concrete way?

According to Wikipedia, the U.S. public debt amounts to $14.26 trillion. Can you think of innovative ways to conceptualise that amount of money? For example, what you could buy with it? Use it for?

Or do you know of an existing infographic or an article that attempts to do anything of the sort? I'm basically trying to think of a way to make such an immense amount of money understandable in some concrete terms.
posted by keijo to Law & Government (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
With Mr. Daniels YT
posted by Cuspidx at 10:13 AM on April 26, 2011

The GDP of the United States in 2010 was just under $15 trillion. That illustrates it pretty well for me.
posted by The World Famous at 10:15 AM on April 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

If dollars were miles, it would come out to almost 30 million round trip flights to the moon.
posted by phunniemee at 10:18 AM on April 26, 2011

Here's an infographic from March 2010, and another from January 2011.
posted by specialagentwebb at 10:18 AM on April 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

You could buy a second-hand car for every adult and child in the world, if there were that many second-hand cars. Which there aren't.

OK, really you cannot make that amount of money concrete in any way. Have a look into the other side: China has been attempting to diversify its huge credit holdings (which are a fraction of the US debt), traditionally funneled into US T-bills, but has to be very careful because the volume of credit it has would ruin the market in any other commodity. They almost killed the copper market a couple of years back. They tried to buy a good portion of the Australian mining sector, but have been rebuffed by legislation. The point is that this amount of dosh is beyond 'money' as we know it.

Or, of course, there's the obvious: about fifty grand for every American. Including babies.
posted by pompomtom at 10:21 AM on April 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

At $3.33 per cubic foot of concrete, you could make a solid block 2.6 miles on each side.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:23 AM on April 26, 2011 [6 favorites]

If you're interested in this sort of thing, the gold standard (IMHO) of last decade's infographic porn on this all sorts of government and demographic data was Richard Saul Wurman's Understanding USA. The numbers are out of date, but in terms of looking at how to break down these massive numbers and depict them in meaningful and creative ways, I'd say it was a fairly seminal work in the rise of infographics in general.

If you don't want to buy the book, a Google image search turns up a bunch of its graphics.

For more current data, a straight up search on national debt infographic (maybe try "national debt visualized") gives lots of great results.
posted by zachlipton at 10:25 AM on April 26, 2011

One way is the GDP is about the public debt. So if everyone worked for free for a year and there were no incurred expenses everywhere, we'd be out.

Big numbers are hard to think about, so I tend to lop off zeros. E.g., the US took in $2.16 trillion in tax revenues so think of the US as a family that earns $21,600 per year in income. This family only making $21k per year somehow found itself with $140,000 worth of credit card debt. Now this family is also in one of the biggest houses on the (global) block. The next most in debt family is the xx family with $yy amount of credit card debt and they only make $zz.

This getting rid of zeros things works with other examples too.

See also and and
posted by Brian Puccio at 10:26 AM on April 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

In any discussion about the national debt, its important to put in context. Comparing it to GDP is one good way to do that especially if you do compare it to the past. That doesn't answer your question though.

I've always liked the piece of trivia that bills in U.S. Currency weight almost exactly 1 gram. This means that, if it we cash in one hundred dollar bills, the debt would weigh 142,600,000kg. Most semi trucks have a max capacity of 80,000Lbs (36,000kg). It would take 3,961 trucks to haul it all.

Even that seems pretty huge (maybe use the hauling capacity of a train instead?). There is probably some trivia about the volume a stack of money in U.S. currency takes up and you could calculate something similar with volume. Maybe it would fill up a stadium or something.

There are a couple of ideas anyways. Good luck!
posted by VTX at 10:29 AM on April 26, 2011

Start by putting a trillion into perspective. This seems to be the main stumbling block, since "million," "billion," and "trillion" sound so similar. Even people who are familiar with the idea that a billion is far more than a million might have more trouble conceiving of a trillion as so much more than a billion. They both sound like "really huge." It's hard to think of a trillion as "so huge that a billion looks like a tiny speck in comparison." (I remember reading about an engineering professor who gave their students a pop quiz on the first day just to get warmed up thinking about numbers. The prof showed them a piece of paper with a line going along one edge, and said if the left end of the page is zero, and the right end is a trillion, where is a billion? On average, students placed a billion about a third of the way over from the left! Of course, a billion should be just 1 thousandth of the way over from the left. The difference between a billion and zero on that sheet of paper should not even be perceptible to the naked eye.)

This article has lots of info. For instance, if you were immortal and were born in the year 1, and you magically got a million dollars a day every day, you would have only about 3 quarters of a trillion dollars today, according to the popular mathematician John Allen Paulos.

Paulos adds: "A million seconds is about 11½ days. A billion seconds is about 32 years, and a trillion seconds is 32,000 years."

Once you've grasped the size of a trillion, then you're well-equipped to think of figures like "$14.3 trillion" in proper perspective.

For instance, since we've established that 1 trillion seconds is 32,000 years, some quick arithmetic will show that 14.3 trillion seconds would be 448,000 (closing in on half a million) years. So if you imagine living to be 100 years old, and then imagine between four and five thousand of these lifespans back to back (not overlapping at all!), the number of seconds that would pass in all of those lifespans is around 14.3 trillion.
posted by John Cohen at 10:47 AM on April 26, 2011 [4 favorites]

Per household also works since Paris Hilton isn't going to be taking a job to pay off this debt, if and when we pay this down the wealth will have to come from the working class one way or the other.

There are ~120M households in the US.

The UST's Debt to the Penny says we're $14.3T in the hole, and $9.7T of that is debt held by the public (the other $4.6T is intragovernment debt, which in isolation would not be a bad thing perhaps).

Anyhoo, the $14.3T national debt is $120,000 per household, ~2.5 times the median household income of $50,000. At 3% interest, it is growing at $3600/yr just from the interest, and another $10,000 or so is being tacked on each year now from deficit spending.

People adjusting the debt by GDP are missing the dynamic that the annual deficit is supporting a large chunk of our GDP. . . cut the DOD budget in half, down to $450B, and our GDP would fall much, much more than that.
posted by mokuba at 11:01 AM on April 26, 2011

I guess it's important what you think you are trying to demonstrate. There are ways of framing it so it sounds huge, ways of framing it so it sounds manageable.

For example, you could consider the ratios of:

Typically family debt, incl mortgages : Typical family income

Public debt per capita : Govt income per capita

For me that would be the most informative and honest comparison, using scales that people can relate to from their own lives.

Alternately if you just what to show that it's huge compared with everyday sums of money, you could use something comparable to this Star Size Comparison video.

Or an interesting comparison is with the wealth of the richest x% of Americans. Apparently the wealth of the richest 400 is roughly $1.4 trn, so the US puiblic debt is about 10 times that. Suddenly it doesn't sounds quite so much like doom.
posted by philipy at 11:12 AM on April 26, 2011

Do it on a per-capita basis. Basically, everyone is saddled with an additional mortgage of $50K or so. Plus any additional credit card/mortgage/car/etc. debt that person may have.
posted by chengjih at 11:14 AM on April 26, 2011

My skimming of the answers here makes me think of one thing - If the 14 trillion were to be called for payment at once, what would it take for us to do it (how much? how long? impact on ordinary Americans? Top 100 billionaire go bankrupt and pay it off? Top 100 companies go bankrupt to pay it off, leaving 20 million people without jobs).

These could be the ways we could answer this question and put it into context. Of course, I have no idea how many zeros 14 trillion has.
posted by theobserver at 11:20 AM on April 26, 2011

Another way to visualize it is how tall the stack of ($1) bills would be:

A US banknote-- let's say a brand new $1 bill-- is approximately .11mm in thickness.

That makes a stack of a thousand $1 bills about 11 cm high, or a little over 4 inches-- about the height of your standard tin can.

So then a stack of a million $1 bills is 110m high, or slightly over 360 feet tall-- roughly the height of this 27-story office building.

Damn, that's a tall stack of money.

On the other hand, a stack of a billion $1 bills is 110 kilometers high. That's 6 miles above the Kármán line. That's, like, where the space shuttle flies.

Holy shit that billion dollars is a preposterously tall stack o' bills. Damn. Basically sticking up into space. Fucking A.

But what about the US public debt of $14.26 trillion? How tall would that be? Well, first of all, it's pretty ridiculous to try to stack that many bills on top of each other, so let's make four stacks.

And how tall would they be? Oh, a little under 400,000 kilometers. Each. Which is roughly how far away the FUCKING MOON is from earth.

So, yeah the progression goes, very roughly: piece of paper; can of tomatoes; 30-story building; edge of the atmosphere; to the moon four times over.
posted by dersins at 11:25 AM on April 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

This report by Mary Meeker is pretty good.
posted by jchaw at 11:27 AM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Adjusting for inflation, and assuming his availability, you could commission 1.12 million Bartók concertos.
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:16 PM on April 26, 2011

posted by kirkaracha at 12:41 PM on April 26, 2011

My skimming of the answers here makes me think of one thing - If the 14 trillion were to be called for payment at once, what would it take for us to do it (how much? how long? impact on ordinary Americans? Top 100 billionaire go bankrupt and pay it off? Top 100 companies go bankrupt to pay it off, leaving 20 million people without jobs).

Here's a list of billionaires and their net worth. As you can see at the link, the Forbes 2011 list puts Warren Buffett as the #3 billionaire, with exactly $50 billion. (You could also use Bill Gates, who's #2 with $56 billion, but I'll stick with Buffett since $50 billion is such a convenient figure.)

With this knowledge, it's pretty easy to run through the math of how many Warren Buffets would be needed to pay off $14.3 trillion -- assuming you could magically get 100% of their money.

50 billion (Buffett's net worth) is, of course, half of 100 billion (since 50 is half of 100). A trillion is a thousand times a billion. So, 100 billion is one tenth of a trillion. (This is like saying that 100 is a tenth of 1,000 -- except we multiply everything by a billion.) We said that Warren Buffett's net worth is half of 100 billion, so we can also say that it's half of one tenth -- in other words, one twentieth -- of a trillion. In other words, 20 Warren Buffetts makes a trillion.

20 * 14.3 = 286. So, if you had 286 Warren Buffetts, their total net worth would be $14.3 trillion.

These could be the ways we could answer this question and put it into context. Of course, I have no idea how many zeros 14 trillion has.

You can easily figure this out as long as you remember that we're talking in terms of multiplying by a thousand, and that you add three zeros to the end of a number when you multiply by a thousand. The principle is obvious in the case of 14 times a thousand: we write it as 14,000 (14 with three zeros). 14 million is 14,000 times a thousand: 14,000,000 (14,000 with three zeros). 14 billion is 14,000,000,000 (14 million with three zeros). 14 trillion is 14,000,000,000,000 (14 billion with three zeros).
posted by John Cohen at 12:51 PM on April 26, 2011

XKCD's radiation chart was a pretty good way to explain different orders of magnitude of radiation. You could do the same with money.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 12:57 PM on April 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

This graphic of one trillion pennies might be useful. I use it in class to illustrate the 1:10^12 ration of carbon 14 to carbon 12.
posted by Rumple at 2:51 PM on April 26, 2011

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