Confronting the federal deficit starts with grasping just how colossal that number actually is. So, what would $1 trillion get you?
The figure is almost incomprehensible: $1,000,000,000,000. One trillion dollars. That's a dozen zeros.
The Congressional Budget Office reports that during the first nine months of fiscal 2010 -- which ends September 30 -- the federal government spent $1 trillion more than it took in. That's another $1 trillion added to a total national debt that stood at just over $13 trillion as of the Fourth of July. (On the bright side, the trillion-dollar nine-month deficit was about $80 billion less red ink than flowed during the same period last year.)
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Not so long ago, the idea of a "trillion" anything was so farfetched that it evoked a comic response similar to what the use of the word "gazillion" does today. The 1960s comment attributed to then Senate minority leader (and ever-vigilant deficit hawk) Everett Dirksen -- "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money" -- seems downright quaint today. (In 1965, the national debt was a paltry $317 billion.)
But, seriously, how much is $1 trillion? To help you wrap your head around that mind-boggling number, and to try to put deficit spending into perspective, consider what $1 trillion will buy, expressed in terms we can all understand:
$1 Trillion Would Buy ...
40,816,326 New Cars
The 2010 Volkswagen Jetta TDI wins Kiplinger's Best in Class honors for cars in the $20,000-to-$25,000 price range. At a sticker price of $24,500 each, $1 trillion would let you drive away with a fleet of Jettas equivalent to 30% of all the cars already on U.S. highways. (The total U.S. car fleet is more than 135 million, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, excluding trucks and SUVs.)
5,574,136 Typical American Homes
According to the National Association of Realtors, the national median price for existing single-family homes in May was $179,400. There are about 80 million detached, single-family homes in the U.S., according to the NAR and the Census Bureau.
140 Billion Hours of Labor
That's calculated at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Still hard to get your mind around? How about this: One trillion dollars is enough to hire all 2.8 million residents of the state of Kansas -- men, women and children -- in full-time, minimum-wage jobs for the next 23 years.
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1.33 Trillion Chocolate Bars
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A Guaranteed $6.3 Billion Payout for a 65-Year-Old Man Every Month for the Rest of His Life
With the demise of the company pension plan -- and its wonderful promise of regular checks in retirement -- immediate-payout annuities are garnering more and more attention. These investments let you trade a lump sum for a guaranteed stream of income for the rest of your life. For example, a 65-year-old man with a sweet quarter of a million nest egg to invest could buy an annuity that will pay him $1,564 a month.
Even at today's record-low interest rates (the lower the interest rate, the more expensive it is to buy future income), $1 trillion earns its way -- and then some. Because women live longer than men, on average, $1 trillion would buy a 65-year-old woman a little less. But having $5.8 billion a year to fall back on is nothing to sneeze at.
A One-Year CD Yielding $15.5 Billion in Interest
Everyone knows that interest rates on bank accounts, money-market funds and certificates of deposit are ludicrously low. But even at just 1.55% -- the best rate we could find recently -- $1 trillion socked away in a one-year CD would still yield a handsome return.
Annual Base Pay for 59.5 Million U.S. Army Privates
Basic pay for an active-duty U.S. Army private with less than two years of experience is $16,794 a year. So $1 trillion goes a mighty long way, even by military spending standards. To put that in perspective, 59.5 million privates is more than 100 times the total number of active-duty soldiers in the Army today.
Replace Annual Incomes for 19.2 Million American Families
Median household income in the U.S. (half the families earn more, half earn less) was $52,029 in 2008, according to the Bureau of the Census. At that level, $1 trillion would be enough to cover the incomes of a sizable percentage of total U.S. family households. There are no recent official estimates, but the 2000 U.S. Census figured there were about 71.8 million family households.
Pay the Estate Taxes for 2,222 Billionaires
Let's assume that, as we expect, Congress reinstates the federal estate tax retroactively to January 1, 2010, with a $3.5 million exemption and a rate of 45%. And assume that the late George Steinbrenner's taxable estate is $1 billion. The tax bill would be almost $450 million. That $1 trillion would be enough to cover the estate taxes of a lot more billionaires who might die before Congress acts.