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National Debt by the Numbers: Just How Big is $20 Trillion?

A stack of 20 trillion one dollar bills, if you could somehow keep Congress from snatching it, would reach an incredible 1,357,300 miles into space.

With our national debt crossing the $20 trillion threshold this week, let’s look at some figures that will help us wrap our mind around this unfathomable amount of money.

To make 20 trillion one dollar bills, it would require commandeering every cotton field in the United States for 19 years (the dollar is actually 75 percent cotton) and it would take 30 years for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to stamp out the notes. The price tag for printing this vast quantity of bills would cost taxpayers another $2 trillion.

Our mountain of 20 trillion George Washington’s would weigh in at a whopping 22 million tons, which just might actually be enough – with a hat tip to Congressman Hank Johnson – to tip over the island of Guam. Chicago’s 108-story Willis Tower, formerly known as the Sears Tower, weighs about 222,500 tons, so it would take 99 such skyscrapers to equal the weight of our national debt. Guam would have an incredible skyline, which we could easily afford to build when you consider that, adjusting for inflation, $20 trillion would buy 21,000 Willis Towers.

Humans have only been around 300,000 years, give or take, so that would have enabled woolly mammoths to make a substantial investment in climate change research instead of becoming fossil fuels.

To ship all that money across the Pacific, it would require 758,000 semi-trucks and 75 trips with the world’s largest cargo ship. But where would we store it? The world’s largest building – by volume – is the 97-acre Boeing Factory in Everett, Washington, where the aircraft manufacturer assembles airliners like the 747 “Jumbo Jet.” If you were to neatly stack one-dollar bills – without pallets – in every available square inch of the monstrous facility, Boeing would still have to build a second factory to store the rest.

A stack of 20 trillion one dollar bills, if you could somehow keep Congress from snatching it, would reach an incredible 1,357,300 miles into space. Considering that the moon is only 238,855 miles away, you could place five stacks of one dollar bills between Earth and the moon and still have enough bills left to reach over halfway on a sixth stack.

A line of 20 trillion one dollar bills placed end to end would extend 2.3 trillion miles, which would go around the world 93 million times. If astronauts could place the bills in a line into space, it would take light nearly five months to travel that distance.

If you were to spend one dollar every second (which isn’t much considering the federal government spends about $1 million per second) it would take nearly 600,000 years to accumulate $20 trillion dollars of debt. Humans have only been around 300,000 years, give or take, so that would have enabled woolly mammoths to make a substantial investment in climate change research instead of becoming fossil fuels. Heading the other direction on the timeline, it would take your family 1,600 generations to spend $20 trillion. However, Congress has managed to accomplish the vast majority of this incredible task in just my lifetime.

This is why we can’t have nice things

Despite a war for independence, the Civil War, two world wars, the space race, Cold War, and countless other conflicts and expenses, it took 205 years before our national debt reached $1 trillion – which didn’t happen until after Ronald Reagan took office. According to figures at usdebtclock.org, our national debt was just $910 billion on Sept. 14, 1980. Ten years later, it was over $3 trillion. In 2000, the debt had increased to $5.7 trillion. In 2012, it had ballooned to $16 trillion, with each American taxpayer responsible for over $156,000. That’s right – the government that racks up the bill doesn’t pay anything; we the people are responsible for the debt.

Congress has done the legal equivalent of stealing your identity and is running up hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of dollars in bills that you will have to pay.

Fast forward to today: thanks to outrageous spending in Washington, each taxpayer is now on the hook for over $167,000. Congress has essentially taken out credit cards in our names, and run up what amounts to a second house payment for every single working citizen. Assuming that the federal government passed a balanced budget amendment today and required taxpayers to pay off their portion of the debt, you would have to mail them a $464 check every month for the next 30 years. Double that if you are married to another taxpayer.

But wait; there’s more

Since 1980, the federal government has taken in over $64 trillion in revenue from the private sector, and still managed to add $19 trillion to the debt. Bear in mind that this is just what is referred to as the official figure; unfunded liabilities such as payments to Medicare and Social Security drive the number way over the $100 trillion mark. While you may not make over $1 million in your lifetime, thanks to runaway spending, that is your share of this debt.

When it comes to our debt, it’s the proverbial foxes guarding the hen house; Congress will make no effort to restrain spending, and some are in fact hoping to end the debt ceiling altogether. With financial catastrophe looming on the horizon, perhaps our only hope is an Article V Convention of the States. Among other issues, states could bypass the federal government and draft Constitutional amendments themselves, such as a balanced federal budget.

Currently 12 states (of the required 34) have passed legislation calling for a convention. Check here to see whether your state has joined, and what you can do to help. And remember that the national debt isn’t just an imaginary number; Congress has done the legal equivalent of stealing your identity and is running up hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of dollars in bills that you will have to pay.

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Chris Carter

Chris Carter is the Director of the Victory Institute, and deputy regional director of the U.S. Counterterrorism Advisory Team. His work appears at The US Report, International Analyst Network, Human Events, Canada Free Press, Family Security Matters, Deutsche Welle, NavySEALs.com, Blackfive and other publications. Chris is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, non-commissioned officer in the South Carolina State Guard, and retired firefighter.

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