Senator is Unclear “What a Trillion Is”

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On Thursday, the U.S. Senate voted to (again) raise the government’s debt limit to nearly nine trillion dollars.  The government has been running huge deficits for the past few years and Congress has had to raise the limit every year for the last four years.  This year, it was raised to $8,965,383,933,372.98, or thereabouts.

Actually, I made up the digits after the 5, because the new limit is reported only as $8.965 trillion, so obviously the remaining four hundred million bucks or so is not that important.  The government probably left it in the pocket of those pants it was wearing the other night.  It’ll turn up.

Maybe part of the reason it keeps going up is that it just doesn’t seem like real money at this point.  Or maybe they just aren’t any good at math.  Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH) said earlier this week that "It’s hard to understand what a trillion is.  I don’t know what it is."  That wouldn’t worry me so much if he weren’t the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.

Reuters interviewed a math professor, John Nolan, to try to provide some sense of "what a trillion is."  To him, of course, it was "not a big number at all" as numbers go.  For the rest of us, he suggested this: to hit a trillion dollars you’d have to spend a million dollars every day for almost three thousand years; or, to put it another way, to spend that much in an average lifespan you would have to spend well over thirty-five million dollars a day.  Ironically, the work required to spend that much money would probably kill you pretty fast, so you’d never actually get the trillion spent.  One of God’s little jokes upon thee.

Don Albers, who is associate executive director of the Mathematical Association of America, and past president of the Society for Getting Beat Up and Having Your Lunch Money Taken, said that the big numbers are not really the issue.  He said, "I don’t think the problem so much is understanding that number as just understanding whether they’ve got more money coming in than is going out."  Oh.  Well, they don’t.  They really don’t.  Can I be Senate Budget Committee Chairman now?