It’s a number — $20.5 trillion — that is so huge it’s almost impossible to fathom.
Even so, $20.5 trillion is America’s national debt. And it must be understood before it consumes the country’s future.
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It is indeed hard to comprehend. Even if you collected $3.3 million every single day from when Jesus was born until today, you still would not have enough money to pay off the accumulated debt of the nation — which has existed only for about 12 percent of that time span.
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One famous visualization produced by the website democracy.info shows what $20 trillion would look like in $100 bills. A pallet containing $100 million worth of $100 bills would stand nearly as high as an average-sized man.
Stack those pallets into a tower — 10 pallets wide by 10 pallets long — substantially higher than the Statute of Liberty. Now build 19 more of those towers, plus three smaller towers, and you will have $20 trillion.
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Even if the logistical challenges of such a feat could be solved, however, it would be literally impossible to stack that much cash for a simple reason: There isn’t enough of it. The $20.5 trillion debt exceeds all of the coins and bank notes in circulation. And not just U.S. money, but all of the currency of every denomination in the world!
According to The Money Project, the value of the world’s coins and paper notes — everything from the greenbacks in U.S. banks to the yuans in Beijing to the loose change in your couch — totals about $7.6 trillion. That is only about a third of the U.S. government’s debt.
Of course, there is a lot more to money than physical cash. The Money Project estimates that “easily accessible money” — currency along with checking accounts — totals $36.8 trillion. Then there are savings accounts, money markets, precious medals, and other instruments. Nonetheless, it paints an illuminating picture of how huge the debt has grown.
And it shows why debt hawks believe lawmakers should not lose focus on an issue that has receded from the public consciousness. Annual deficits have declined since the worst years following the 2008 market collapse that triggered the Great Recession.
“We’re basically in unchartered waters. That’s pretty scary. And it’s particularly scary when you look at what’s causing it. They’re not things that are easily reversible.”
The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB), which advocates for balanced budgets, warns that the federal budget deficit for the coming year could hit $1 trillion again. That is without factoring in the impact of tax cuts, which could mean increased revenue in the long run but less in the near term. Instead, hurricane disaster relief and a budget expected to blast through spending caps imposed during Barack Obama’s presidency would be the main drivers of the red ink.
Marc Goldwein, CRFB’s senior vice president and senior policy director, noted that the debt now exceeds the gross domestic product by 7 percent. Except during World War II, the national debt has never before been that high.
“We’re basically in unchartered waters,” he told LifeZette. “That’s pretty scary. And it’s particularly scary when you look at what’s causing it. They’re not things that are easily reversible.”
Those causes, Goldwein said, include an aging population that will be less productive and draw more on social insurance programs over the next couple of decades. Health costs also have been rising faster than economic growth.
[lz_table title=”Rising Debt” source=”Congressional Budget Office”]Projected national debt*
*Not including effects of 2017 tax cut.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters at the White House last week that he has no projection for how much the debt will grow by the end of President Donald Trump’s first term. But he added that debt remains a concern.
That is one of the reasons the administration pushed through the tax reform plan last year, Mnuchin said. Lower rates and a simpler tax code will boost economic growth, he said.
“Under the last administration, the debt has gone from $10 trillion to $20 trillion and, of course, we’re focused on the debt,” he said. “And that’s why we’re focused on economic growth. This tax plan was about economic growth that will create more revenues for the economy and more tax receipts for the government.”
Goldwein agreed that the economy will grow faster as a result of the tax cuts — but not fast enough to make up for the lost revenue. He said a “one-time sugar high” could kick the economy into high gear in the short term but that the pace could not be sustained over the long haul.
What’s more, he added, the true cost likely will be higher than official projections because of provisions that are scheduled to expire though most observers believe Congress will extend them.
Adam Michel, a tax policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, a traditional conservative Washington, D.C., think tank, agreed that the debt “is something that we should still be concerned about.”
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But Michel said focusing on tax cuts, as Democrats do, misses the main driver of long-term debt. An analysis by the government’s Joint Committee on Taxation that factors increased economic activity projects that the tax law will increase the debt by $1 trillion over the next decade. But the Congressional Budget Office’s 10-year projection — which does not account for the tax cuts — foresees that debt will grow to $30 trillion without policy changes.
That means the tax cuts would be responsible for just 3.2 percent of the total projected debt in 2027.
Michel said he believes economic growth will outperform officials projections as a result of the tax cuts, and that will make the debt easier to tackle. But he said it is impossible without taming the fast-growing entitlement programs.
“This is a spending problem, not a revenue problem,” he said.
PoliZette senior writer Brendan Kirby can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter.
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