Framing an Absurd Number

I came upon something interesting this morning that I just couldn’t help but pause a moment to dwell on.  The total U.S. Debt has reached new heights, weighing in now at $19,119,650,721,000.  I was staggered to see a number of that magnitude with a dollar sign in front of it. That kind of number is typically seen in the fields of astronomy and science; it truly is astronomical!  That’s a tough number to realistically comprehend.  To help me wrap my mind around it, I did some maths to put that figure into a few different perspectives. Here’s what I came up with:

If the total of our debt was in the form of $1 bills and they were lined up in single file, end-to-end, their total length would be 1,852,820,560 miles.

The distance between Mars and Earth, when they are in opposition and both are at aphelion (furthest distance apart), is approximately 249,000,000 miles.

This means our line of debt could go from earth to mars and back again… and then there and back again… and then there and back again… and then there once more and halfway back. That is 3 round trips, plus a final trip back to Mars with a partial return trip to Earth.

I put together this funny little composition to illustrate the idea.

Distance of Debt-small


So I’ve used the vastness of space to help quantify the number, let’s look at it now in more terrestrial terms. The earth is 24,901 miles in circumference.
If you laid $1 bills end-to-end you could wrap them in single file around the earth… 74,407 times. To save yourself the trouble of going around that many times, you could go around once, stacking this line of money over 25 feet high.

How do we raise that amount of lettuce to pay off our debt? Let’s pretend all of planet Earth wanted to chip in.
As of 2016, there are approximately 7,432,663,275 people on our planet.  If every man, woman, and child ante’d up, each would need to contribute $2,572.
If only US citizens endeavored to settle the debt, each of us would need to fork over about $59,123.

Ok, so now we have all of this money, let’s imagine delivering it to our nation’s capital in the form of one dollar bills.

If you completely loaded the 53 foot trailer of an 18-Wheeler with $1 bills, you would need about 213,690 of these to hold it all. Touching bumper to bumper, that would be a string of trucks about 2,955 miles long. That would span the distance from New York to San Francisco.

When the money arrived in Washington DC, you could gift wrap every square inch of land in the District of Columbia with these $1 bills… 1,250 times. For simplicity, just stack the bills 5 inches high across that entire area.

Say, for the sake of convenience, we wanted to keep the money a bit more centrally located.  The White House lawn is 18 acres.  Let’s stack all of the money on just that fenced-in area around The House. This mountain of $1 bills would be 997 feet tall.

Alright now, that’s an eyesore so let’s be even more practical about it. Convert the total National Debt to it’s value in weight of 24k gold. How much gold does that buy? You could, pave the entire White House lawn -excluding the area of the house – in a 12” inch thick layer of it, weighing in right around 938.2 million pounds.  That weight of gold is nearly 3 times the estimated amount that has ever been mined in the history of mankind.

Let’s pretend one last time: If having that much gold in such a small area is a bit awkward, we could always spread it out some. Gold is extremely malleable – in fact, out of all the metals, it is the most.  Just 1 ounce of it can be hammered out to cover an area of about 100 square feet. That being said, this weight in gold, equivalent to the value of U.S. debt, could be hammered out to cover every square inch of the Earth’s land surface area that is above water… 5 times.

I think I have better understanding now of just how big 19.1 trillion dollars is.  It is an absurd amount of money. What’s even more absurd is when it’s expressed in the form of a negative number.

I wrote this as piece of humor to satisfy my own morbid curiosity.  In all seriousness, we owe it to ourselves to challenge and encourage the next President to make it their personal goal to greatly reduce this number during their time in office. National Security comes first, but our debt goes hand-in-hand with it. When the rest of the world owns us, how can we secure what is no longer ours?


Interested in the numbers?

  • U.S. Currency Note is 6.14 inches long x 2.61 inches wide
  • weighs 1 gram or .00220462 pounds
  • area of .1112875 square feet 
  • thickness of .0041 inches 
  • volume of .000038 cubic feet per bill.  
  • Volume of $1 bills x Debt = 726,546,727 cubic feet
  • U.S. Debt in $1 bills laid end-to-end is 1,852,820,560 miles long
  • U.S. Debt in $1 bills has an area of 2,127,778,129,613 square feet
  • 53’ Semi-trailer has a volume of 3400 cubic feet.
  • Average length of 18-Wheeler with 53’ trailer is 73 feet
  • Current price of gold = $1273.5 per ounce
  • Total weight of debt in gold = 938,286,035 pounds or 15,012,576,560 ounces.
  • Gold density is 11.1677 ounces per cubic inch
  • Debt in gold volume is 1,344,285,444 cubic inches or 777,942 cubic feet
  • Estimated worldwide mining of gold through out history is 167,551 tons 
  • 1 ounce of gold can be hammered out to 100 square feet
  • Weight of gold in U.S. Debt is 938,200,000 pounds
  • Surface area of gold (1 oz = 100 square feet) in U.S. debt = 1,501,120,000,000 square feet or 284,303,030 square miles
  • Surface area of land above water on Earth is 57,308,738 square miles
  • Washington DC useable land area = 61.05 square miles or 1,701,976,320 square feet.
  • White House Lawn = 18 acres
  • 18 acres = 784,080 sqft
  • Total Lawn – White House (-55,000 sqft) = 729,080 square feet
  • Surface area of Earth is 196950711 square miles or 5,490,670,701,500,000 square feet
  • Reported US Citizens is 323,386,029 (all ages)
  • Earth Population estimate is 7,432,663,275 (all ages)

5 thoughts on “Framing an Absurd Number

  1. I agree with the general absurdity of it, but then, paper (let alone digital) money is rather absurd to begin with. Luckily, what you owe only becomes meaningful when you relate it to what you own. Do the US of A really collectively owe more than they own? Not a chance. But would be interesting to do the math on thAt one, as well 😉

    Aside from that: congratulations on a great blog Tom, your photography and writing are an inspiration!


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