I recall reading an article years ago by Douglas Hofstadter in which he lamented the fact that while we had a term for those who couldn't read and readily understand written language; illiteracy, we had no corollary for those who had no real appreciation of numbers. He offered the neologism "innumeracy " to describe when people were incapable of dealing with higher order mathematics. I've a feeling that word describes a large percentage of the American populace.
I've joked for years that if the average American actually understood what a trillion dollars really was, there would be a politician, bureaucrat, or lobbyist hanging from every lamp post in Washington. So, in the week that the national debt has passed the 16 trillion dollar point let see if we can't make that number a bit more understandable. Since none of us have any experience with that kind of money, lets look at it in terms of something we do understand, time.
I'm writing this on Thursday evening the 6th of September. If we take each dollar as a second, a million seconds ago it was Sunday morning on August the 26th.
One billion seconds ago it was the spring of 1980, Jimmy Carter was president, and Reagan's election was still six months away.
One trillion seconds ago it was 29,687 B.C. Our Cro-Magnon ancestors were just beginning to explore a Europe slowly revealed by the retreating glaciers of the last Ice Age, and the first cities, and anything we would remotely describe as civilization were still 20 thousand years in the future.
16 trillion seconds ago it was 505,344 B.C. and the first recognizable humans had just began to trod the path that leads to their prodigal descendants, us.
If we were to freeze the debt where it is today, and pay it down at the rate of one dollar per second, we'd be clear of it sometime in the year 2519. Of course, that's not including the interest. At the current prime rate, at a dollar per second, that will take an additional 19,054,409,787,071.6 years.
As the late Senator Everett Dirksen used to say; "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money."