How much is twenty trillion dollars?

By: By Mac McPhail - Contributing columnist

Twenty trillion dollars. I bet you haven’t seen or heard those words lately. Politicians don’t want to discuss it, mainly because they don’t want to deal with it. (Sen. Rand Paul did speak out about it during a budget vote last month, but was quickly ignored.) And the media doesn’t deal with it, because it’s not a flashy, attention getting subject. An outspoken President and rowdy protests make for better TV coverage. What is the $20 trillion? It’s the almost twenty trillion dollar U.S. national debt.

We know the national debt is huge, but how much is a trillion dollars? (Remember, we now owe 20 trillion dollars.) Let’s put it in terms that maybe we can relate. If your salary was $40,000 a year, it would take 25 years to earn a million dollars. With the same salary, it would take 25 thousand years to earn a billion dollars. With that same $40,000 a year salary, it would take 25 million years to earn a trillion dollars.

How much is a trillion dollars? Let’s try something a little more visual. A trillion dollars’ worth of $1 bills stacked on top of one another would reach about 67,000 miles. Therefore, $20 trillion of stacked $1 bills would be more than 1 million miles high — enough to stretch from the Earth to the moon four times and still have money left over.

How did the United States government get to owe its creditors twenty trillion dollars? It has been a bi-partisan effort. The national debt growth spurt started during the Ronald Reagan administration, when it doubled from $2 to $4 trillion. It leveled out some, only increasing $1 trillion to $5 trillion, during the Bill Clinton years. (Oh, the good old days.)

But since 2000, the U.S. national debt has exploded. It more than doubled from $5 trillion to $11 trillion during the eight years George Bush was President. What the U.S. owes almost doubled again during the Barak Obama administration, going from $11 trillion to the almost $20 trillion national debt we now owe.

And there are no prospects of the borrowing by the U.S. government slowing down. The same budget vote that Rand Paul spoke out against allows the U.S. debt to increase to $29 trillion over the next few years. And there doesn’t seem to be much will in the Trump administration and Congress to slow down the debt machine.

Who do we owe that $20 trillion dollars? China is no longer the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt. We “only” owe them $1.2 trillion. They come in second behind Japan, whom we owe $1.25 trillion. But who do we owe the most? Surprisingly, it’s us. The largest holder of U.S. debt is the U.S. Federal Reserve, holding $2.5 trillion of its own debt.

In other words, we have borrowed the most money from ourselves. I’m not sure exactly how you can do that. And I’m not certain how you collect a debt from yourself. But I didn’t get a doctorate in economics, or work at Goldman Sachs, like those experts in Washington.

In the Bible, Psalm 37:21 states, “The wicked borrows and does not repay.” That’s strong words, calling them “wicked.” But borrowing with no realistic plan of repaying is basically stealing. When we do that, who might we end up stealing from? From our creditors, for sure. But most of them are gambling that they won’t be the ones stuck with nonpayment. Maybe their gamble will work.

So, who are we definitely stealing from? We may face some of the consequences of national debt. But our kids and grandkids surely will. They will face financial chaos, if the U.S. government reaches the point of where it can’t pay and basically declares bankruptcy. Or they will face hyperinflation, if the government decides to print money to pay the debt. This a real possibility. Or they will face the daunting task of trying to pay down the debt that their elders chose to ignore. Yes, those who come after us will probably think of us as “wicked.”

Then, how much is the twenty trillion dollars that the U.S. government owes its creditors? The folks in Washington know. And most of us know. Simply, the $20 trillion national debt is more than we’ll probably ever be able, or willing, to repay. And that’s why you seldom hear anyone in Washington talking about it. But they need to. They may need a reminder. My representatives have gotten an email from me.

Mac McPhail McPhail

By Mac McPhail

Contributing columnist

Mac McPhail, raised in Sampson County, lives in Clinton and can be reached at

Mac McPhail, raised in Sampson County, lives in Clinton and can be reached at