April 25, 1996

April 25, 1996 | Commentary on Federal Budget

ED042596c: How Much is $1.6 Trillion?

With six kids and a single income, I am probably more aware than most where my paycheck goes. One thing I know for sure is that too much goes to government.

The federal government this year -- despite the much-ballyhooed "cuts" the Washington establishment has been bemoaning -- will spend some $1.6 trillion. The House of Representatives will begin debating spending targets for fiscal year 1997 during the first week of May. Make no mistake: Overall spending will go up, not down.

Even though I have worked in the nation's capital for more than a dozen years, eight of them on Capitol Hill, two at the Pentagon, and six at The Heritage Foundation, where we routinely analyze programs costing tens of billions of dollars, I don't have the faintest idea how much $1.6 trillion really is.

For most of us, even a million is incomprehensible. Have you ever tried to count to a million? Think about it: If you counted non-stop without eating or sleeping it would take approximately 23 days to count to a million. To count to a billion literally would take a lifetime: 95 years.

Counting to a trillion, assuming we get started right away and don't waste any time, would take about 2,000 centuries -- 200,000 years.

Most of us can at least imagine counting for 23 days. A period of 2,000 centuries, on the other hand, is beyond human understanding. As is a trillion dollars.

Of course, government doesn't just count money, it spends it -- and it does so at a phenomenal rate: $4.5 billion a day. Enough to support my family and quite a few others for a very long time.

A lot of the money government spends is borrowed, more than half-a-million dollars per minute, $32 million an hour, or $768 million a day. This borrowed money gets added to the national debt.

Despite two very costly world wars, it took from the beginning of the American Republic until 1982 -- more than 200 years -- to amass the first $1 trillion in debt. By February 1996, however, the debt exceeded $5 trillion. On April 19, when I last checked, the "national debt clock" on the Internet stood at $5,147,684,202,607.46.

That's five trillion, 147 billion, 684 million, 202 thousand, 607 dollars and 46 cents: More than $19,450 for every man, woman and child in the United States, a whopping $155,000 for the Mason family -- enough to purchase a new house and pay a year's worth of college tuition, with money left over.

The story doesn't end here, however. Unless something drastic happens, government spending and borrowing will get worse. Under the current budget, annual government spending will increase to $2 trillion by the year 2002 -- just six years down the road. The debt also will increase: by approximately $150 billion per year.

Moreover, this spending spree is now largely on autopilot. The cost of mandatory "entitlement" programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, already the largest portion of the budget, will increase 63 percent by the year 2002, while interest payments on the national debt will increase 16 percent. The remainder of the budget, meanwhile -- for national defense, law enforcement, environmental cleanup, maintenance of U.S. ports and parks and everything else -- will grow a relatively modest 14 percent.

Unchecked, this crowding-out effect would reach its destructive conclusion in 2010 -- the year my seven-year-old reaches the age of 21 -- when entitlement spending and interest on the national debt will consume 100 percent of the federal budget.

The next time somebody says government spending needs to be brought under control you'll know why. If you forget, just start counting. I'm sure you'll remember long before you reach 5 trillion, 147 billion.

Note: David Mason is former vice president for government relations at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.

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