Understanding the Magnitude of the $30 Trillion Federal Debt

The U.S. debt has just surpassed $30 trillion, and most of America hardly batted an eye. When large numbers like $1 trillion here and $3 trillion dollars there are thrown around so often by federal leaders, it’s hard not to become desensitized. 


Most news outlets did their due diligence in running a headline marking the grim milestone. But as the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board pointed out, most politicians were unphased.

It’s difficult to fathom one trillion, let alone 30 trillion. The median U.S. income is $31,000—multiply that by about 967 million, and you’ve got $30 trillion. 

Utah state representative Ken Ivory, the chairman of the ALEC Center to Restore the Balance of Government, noted that it would take 32,000 years to count to one trillion, allotting one second per number, which means it would take 960,000 years to count to 30 trillion. That’s 3,902 times the age of the United States.

What’s 30 trillion in terms of distance? It would take well over 163,000 trips to the sun and back before the odometer hit 30 trillion miles. Elon Musk could make about 150,000 trips to Mars before hitting the 30 trillion-mile mark. The ALEC team could drive 5.5 billion roundtrips from the ALEC headquarters in Northern Virginia to San Diego, where the 2021 States & Nation Policy Summit was held.

Maybe these examples are still a bit too abstract. The average 30 second Super Bowl ad costs $7 million, meaning $30 trillion could buy over 4.2 million ads or 126 million seconds of airtime. In order to set the NFL’s all-time passing yards record at 30 trillion yards, recently retired quarterback Tom Brady would need to play for well over 7.8 billion additional years (don’t expect him not to try). 

These are all fun examples to explain the magnitude of the $30 trillion federal debt, but the seriousness of America’s debt crisis remains. Government debt and spending negatively impact economic growth in ways that are not “transitory” as some have claimed. The impacts of government debt and spending, such as inflation, higher interest rates and higher tax rates, could cost the U.S. economy $4 trillion to $5 trillion in real GDP over the next 30 years. Yet Congress continues to spend at unprecedented and irresponsible levels that drive the debt higher and higher. The federal government reportedly collected $4.05 trillion in revenue last year but spent $6.82 trillion—creating a deficit of $2.77 trillion. At this rate, the federal debt is projected to exceed the size of the U.S. economy by 2026.

The federal government can learn valuable lessons from the 50 laboratories of democracy: Forty-nine out of the 50 states have balanced-budget requirements on the books. Only Vermont and our federal government in Washington, D.C. do not. Congress would be wise to follow the examples of fiscal responsibility set by Utah, South Dakota, Florida, North Carolina and Arizona—just to name a few. This is critical to avoiding the spending and debt trap that we face right now in our Nation’s Capital.