Counting down to infinity

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By John Pawlak

As a teacher of mathematics, it always bothers me how little comprehension there seems to be with big numbers. Perhaps the blame lies in evolution’s decision to accommodate us with only 10 fingers.
The worst victim of math is our National Debt, which now stands at more than $17.6 trillion. Now, the problem here is the use of the word “trillion.” It makes it sounds so well understood and sensible.
Maybe we should change the word. Would saying that the National Debt is 17.6 wowza-hollaring-gazillion dollars make it sound more intimidating?
But really, how big is the debt?
One figure used to scare people (rightfully so) is $56,300, the amount of debt owned by every man, woman and child in our nation. But this still doesn’t seem to convey the actual size here. We need a more geometric perspective.
Consider the border fencing being built along the U.S.-Mexico border. The average cost per mile of fencing is $3,900,000 (someone out there is getting very rich). Even at that ridiculously high cost, with more than 17 trillion dollars to spend, we could build fencing to circumscribe the entire perimeter of the Continental United States, not just once by 415 times.
Or consider a more “sensible” way of spending that much money. Spread out 17.6 trillion dollar bills and you could “carpet” the entire state of North Dakota.
See, the problem is that it’s hard to grasp numbers this big. Seventeen trillion grains of rice could fill the Empire State building, and half again. If you spent $100 per second, it would take you 5,600 years to spend the debt.
Ever hear stories of people being paid their weight in gold? With $17.6 trillion, we could give every single person in Dallas, San Diego and Chicago their weight in gold.
Pile up 17.6 trillion $1 bills and you’d get a stack high enough to go to the moon five times!
Line those bills up end to end, and you’d circle the Earth 68,000 times, more than 18 times the distance from Earth to the sun.
Want to send your kid to a private college, with no loans or scholarships? That will cost you about $45,000 a year (tuition, fees, room, board, books, etc.), about $180,000 for the four years. The National Debt could pay that amount for nearly 100,000,000 students.
OK, so the debt is a big number, and getting bigger every day. In a single day, it increases about $2.35 billion. The $180,000 for that expensive college equates to 6.6 seconds of increase in debt.
After a while, the comparisons blur and the numbers numb the brain. After all, we only have about 86 billion neurons, nothing close to what’s needed to comprehend numbers in the trillions.
Now, a Republican reading this column would take all this data as proof positive that the Democrats are spending us into oblivion. But the truth is both Democrats and Republicans are equally guilty of bankrupting this nation.
After World War II, our National Debt represented 113 percent of our Gross National Product.  It began to decrease and by the end of Carter’s administration, it was down to 32.5 percent.
And then debt began to “trickle down” on the American public, increasing constantly over the past 25 years. Currently, our debt is nearly 110 percent of the GNP and no one with any intelligence is predicting that it will go down.
 So what›s the solution? Fire all the teachers and save all that money from something as silly as education? That would save 1.2 percent of the National Debt. But since the debt is increasing at four times that amount every year, this won’t solve the problem (as a teacher would say, do the math).
How about scraping the entire military? OK, that’s 3.6 percent of the total accumulated debt, not even half of the yearly increase.
The problem seems so big it’s like spitting on a house fire.
I think the most reasonable approach is to start teaching our students what comes after a trillion, that being a quadrillion.
That way, they’ll be able to use correct terminology when they’re old and writing newspaper columns about the debt.