Astronomical Debt

The US national debt exceeds 23 trillion dollars. That's $23 with twelve zeroes after it. What would $23 trillion look like?

At US Debt Clock.org you can get a running live tally. How do we wrap our head around such large numbers? Here's a modified analogy from a 2012 blog post when the debt was rocketing past $16 trillion and an election neared to choose a President for the next four years:

Astronomy used to be the provenance of really big numbers, but purveyors of and spin masters of debt have encroached on that domain. Nonetheless, let's put 23 trillion dollars in perspective, and then ask the candidates for their vision of the future not of four years, but of 104 years, literally--the era of our children's children.

Step through this astronomical analogy. Imagine you drive coast to coast in a Made-in-the-USA vehicle at 186 miles per hour. As you zip along the interstate, every mile you throw a dollar bill out the window. That's coast to coast--Los Angeles to New York City--in 15 hours.

Now ramp up to 186 thousand miles per hour, still throwing currency out the window every mile at that speed. In fewer than eight minutes you circumnavigate the equator, leaving a dollar in your wake every mile of the way.

Finally, travel at the speed of light--186,000 miles per second. At this speed you feverishly throw $186,000 out the window every second. The first quarter million miles to the moon would take fewer than 2 seconds. You'd zoom past the sun in eight minutes. Your destination is Proxima, one of the Alpha Centauri stars nearest Earth, at about 4.3 light years away.

A light year is about six trillion miles (5,878,499,817,000 miles), so our 23-plus trillion dollar debt would leave a debris trail in your rear view mirror--remember, a dollar bill tossed out every mile on this trip!--that is nearly 4 light years long.

After four years at this unachievable pace, throwing $186,000 out the window every second, you may be approaching the nearest star Proxima, but you're a very long way from leaving our children's children debt free.

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