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Commentary: How big is the deficit?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 20, 2010 - Why worry about the deficit? Because it is really big, that's why. We've all heard the numbers and, for most of us, its size is just incomprehensible. A billion here, a trillion there, but who understands what those numbers actually mean? To better grasp the sheer magnitude of the deficit, let's put some dimensions to the deficit debate.

Just how big is the deficit? The Congressional Budget Office recently reported its preliminary estimate for the 2010 deficit. It is $1.291 trillion. That is $1,291 billion, or $1,291,000,000,000. That is a lot of zeros. Noted U.S. physicist Richard Feynman once quipped that since the deficit is larger than the number of stars in our galaxy, these large numbers once referred to as astronomical should henceforth be called economical.

What is your share of the deficit? With a population of just over 308 million, divvying up the deficit would allocate to everyone in the U.S., adult and baby alike, about $4,200. Think of this as your personal payment to eliminate the deficit.

How about length? A U.S. bill measures approximately 6.1 inches by 2.6 inches. (A useful bit of information.) Measured in one-dollar bills laid end-to-end, the deficit would stretch roughly 124,291,351 miles. Still too large to comprehend? Think of those dollars going almost 5,000 around the Earth; equaling 260-round trips to the moon; or the equivalent of about 2.5 round trips to Mars. The deficit really goes a long way.

How much does the deficit weigh? A pound of money contains 490 bills. (Still more useful trivia.) Again using $1 bills as our unit of account, the deficit tips the scale at 1,317,347 tons. As a point of reference, consider the ill-fated Titanic. Since the Titanic weighed in at 46,328 tons, the deficit is equivalent to 28 Titanics -- not that we need a sinking metaphor with the economy. If an iceberg could sink the unsinkable ship, what do you suppose the weighty deficit might do to the economy?

How much area would the deficit cover? A dollar is approximately 16 square inches. The deficit, if laid out in a giant quilt, is just about big enough to cover Connecticut. Disappointed that the answer isn't Texas? If it helps stoke your anti-deficit fervor, think of the deficit as being equivalent to more than 2.9 million football fields. That's probably more fields than in all of the state of Texas.

Finally, let's put the deficit into the time dimension. Think of the deficit as dollars per second ticking away. Let's ease into this. A day consists of 86,400 seconds. A million seconds lasts 11.5 days. A trillion seconds takes more than 31,700 years to elapse. If you spent the nearly $1.3 trillion deficit at a rate of one dollar per second it would take 40,937 years to deplete the entire amount. Other than archeologists, who knows what was happening nearly 41,000 years ago?

Instead of reducing the deficit by $1 per second, suppose you spent it at a rate of $100 per second. At this pace it takes "only" 409 years to reduce the deficit to zero. In other words, from about 1600 to the present. If Charles I, King of England started spending $100 a second when he was born, he would by now just about have spent the entire deficit. On the other hand, if J.S. Bach began spending $100 a second when he was born and were still spending it, today he'd have more than $250 billion left.

No matter how you measure it, the deficit is simply enormous. And by the way, the government's debt is almost eight times larger. So when you have the opportunity to choose between candidates who want to enact programs that increase the deficit and those who think the deficit should be reduced, these figures may help you decide.

Gail Heyne Hafer is a professor of economics at St. Louis Community College Meramec. R.W. Hafer is a professor of economics and finance at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and a research scholar at the Show-Me Institute. 

Rik Hafer is a distinguished research professor in the Department of Economics and Finance at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and a scholar at the Show-Me Institute.

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