Contra Mozilla

Monday, April 27, 2015


I gave an exam today, which had a Fermi problem which is meant to help visualize the national debt. The first part of the problem is to estimate the national debt. According to Forbes, this has just recently passed the $18 trillion mark. That's $18 000 000 000 000, or roughly $54 000 per person living in the US.

In grading the exams, I notice that many of my students would estimate the national debt to be $1 billion or even $100 billion. One guessed $670 billion and commented that she was sure this was too large. This makes me a) sad at how badly informed they are, and b) realize how depressingly large the national debt actually is. It is so large, that many of these people cannot even conceive of it, and cannot conceive of a country which owes so much money.

There is a third thing which I realize: the federal government gets away with it, largely because the people who will likely end up having to pay this thing off (those between my and my children's generations) are unaware of the scope of the problem. If the debt were only $1 billion, it would be easily rectified (that's $3 per person in the US). Even $ 100 billion is solvable in a short period of time.

What we have now might be solvable, if it is approached as the equivalent of paying off student loan debts, or maybe a house payment. But the first step is to start living below and not above our means as a country. There is no sign that this will be happening any time soon, at least not of our own volition.

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