- - Thursday, December 11, 2014

At some point between Thanksgiving and December 1, the federal government made history, as the value of outstanding U.S. Treasury securities exceeded $18 trillion—that’s an 18 with 12 trailing zeroes. At some point, such numbers begin to lose their meaning because the amounts exceed most people’s ability to comprehend.

The abstraction of such numbers, in turn, makes it difficult to understand just how gigantic a problem the national debt is. However, using tangible objects to represent the magnitude of the debt can help solve that problem.

Divided equally, each American household’s share of the national debt is roughly $153,846—about enough money to buy a two-story house with four bedrooms in Jacksonville, Florida. Breaking it down further, each American adult’s share of the debt is about $74,074, or the price tag on a real, working, back-mounted personal jetpack.

However, imagining not having an additional Florida home or back-mounted jetpacks may still be a bit too abstract. So try this: Imagine a single 100 dollar bill. For most Americans, that is enough money to fund a really good night out on the town.

Now visualize a pallet of those Benjamins. An ISO-standard pallet of hundreds, wrapped in bundles and stacked on top of one another, is equivalent to $100 million.



Imagine having 10 of these pallets of money, which amounts to $1 billion. Assuming a daily spending rate of $10,000—over $400 per hour—the average individual would require nearly three centuries to spend it all.

On the other hand, the federal government spends at an average rate of roughly $399,315,459 per hour, every hour of every day. In other words, while our hypothetical individual billionaire needs multiple lifetimes to make it rain with such volume, our real-life government spends 10 pallets of one-hundred dollar bills in less than three hours.

As documented by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) this fall, the federal government is very adept at spending money it expects to collect from the taxpayers of tomorrow in order to fund the things it wants today.

For example, 11 federal agencies spent a combined $50 million, amounting to half a pallet of hundreds, on paid administrative leave—or, perhaps more accurately, paid vacations—for public servants accused of bad behavior such as viewing pornography at work or drunk driving.

The U.S. State Department spent nearly a full pallet, $90 million, to promote “cultural exchange programs,” including the rap stylings of Arkansas Bo and Big Piph. Bo and Piph’s message transcends national and cultural barriers, asking the eternal question of “y’all got some ass though … If you don’t want me looking, what the hell you wear ‘em for?”

Another example of the government’s aptitude for spending astronomical amounts of money is literally astronomical. The national government burned through 30 pallets of money, or $3 billion, testing the performance of golf clubs at the International Space Station in 2013. Since the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) mothballed the American space program in 2011, every visit to space costs the taxpayers roughly a pallet and a half of c-notes, payable to the Russian government.

Frivolous spending in the federal government abounds, trading tomorrow’s expected wealth for today’s desires. To many people, the problem seems insurmountable, but the first step to take when stuck at the bottom of a hole is simple: stop digging!

Jesse Hathaway is a research fellow with The Heartland Institute.

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