Browse the Internet for wisdom, and one will find what seems like a trillion ways to think of what a trillion is. Or maybe it’s wiser to say a thousand ways, because a trillion is pretty big.
But what ought to be kept in mind, in the course of the debate about the federal deficit and the federal debt — $14 trillion and change — is that it’s an awfully big number.
Time magazine quoted author David Schwartz, who penned — in what seems innocent times of deficits in the hundreds of billions — a good line about this. “A billion seconds is 32 years. And a trillion seconds is 32,000 years. I like to say that I have a pretty good idea what I’ll be doing a million seconds from now, no idea what I’ll be doing a billion seconds from now, and an excellent idea of what I’ll be doing a trillion seconds from now.” Now the federal deficit annually — every single year — is over a trillion dollars, and the $14 trillion federal debt is the subject of heated debate in Washington. But a fundamental fact is just how much a trillion dollars is, and how foolish it is for politicians to argue about paying that debt off with small and poll-tested initiatives.
Republicans in their recent budget resolution propose to cut taxes further. That’s an absurdity in terms of paying off the trillions. But President Barack Obama is almost as bad, rattling on about cutting tax breaks for private jets. Maybe those need to go, and certainly tax reform is a good idea. But the president trivializes the debate about the trillions.
Paying off trillions requires that every American pay more in taxes. Not just the “rich,” as the president glibly says, but all of us. The deficit and the debt are just too high. Spending cuts will have to attack all areas of federal spending, and that, too, affects people at every level of the income scale.
The experts agree on both sides of the political aisle.
“You can’t address our fiscal situation without asking the vast bulk of the middle class to make a contribution,” Robert Reischauer told The Wall Street Journal. The Democrat is a former head of Congress’ Budget Office. Another former CBO director, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, agreed: “It’s pretty clear that there isn’t enough money to just tax the rich,” said Holtz-Eakin, a Republican. “I don’t think the strategy will be hammer the poor. By process of elimination, you end up touching many more Americans.”
A trillion might be hard to visualize. But it’s a lot, and far more difficult to pay off than the debate in Washington leads people to expect.