A number of the Democratic Presidential candidates are promising to provide a variety of free items to the nation if elected. Among these freebies are tuition free college, childcare, forgiveness of student loan debt, and some kind of assistance for healthcare. The precise cost of these items, and the details of how they will be paid for is largely unclear. Several candidates have proposed providing Medicare for all as a solution to the nation’s healthcare problem. Estimates of the cost of doing so have been in the trillions of dollars. Whatever the cost, the national debt will grow if it is financed through deficit spending.
According to the latest reports, the federal budget deficit for fiscal year 2020 will exceed one trillion dollars. That will increase our current national debt that is already 23 trillion dollars.
Let’s face it. Numbers that large are really incomprehensible. We can grasp small numbers, because we deal with them every day. Gasoline at $2.39 a gallon has real meaning to us. We can readily visualize and react to a tax proposal that would add fifty cents to the price of a gallon of gasoline. There is, however, a limit to the size of the numbers that we can visualize. We can easily visualize $1,000. A great many of us live in neighborhoods where homes have a value of $200,000 to $300,000. We can digest those numbers. We are aware that many celebrities have homes that cost several million dollars. But as the numbers get higher, we begin to lose the ability to visualize them.
As we lose the ability to visualize large numbers, we lose the ability to deal with them rationally. Large numbers become unreal. And, if something is unreal, we don’t worry about it.
We can easily visualize $1,000. A great many of us live in neighborhoods where homes have a value of $200,000 to $300,000. We can digest those numbers. We are aware that many celebrities have homes that cost several million dollars. But as the numbers get higher, we begin to lose the ability to visualize them.
Try to picture a trillion dollars in your mind’s eye. That is a one followed by twelve zeros. I know I have a hard time doing it. Trying to appreciate what 23 trillion dollars really means is like trying to visualize distances measured in light years. Drawings of massive piles of currency just don’t do it. So let me try to make it understandable.
But first, a frame of reference. Efforts have been underway for several years to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. So let’s take that as our starting point. A person earning the minimum wage of $15 an hour for 40 hours a week for 50 weeks (assume two weeks of unpaid vacation) would earn $30,000 a year. Hold on to that figure.
Now let’s suppose that we try to pay off the national debt of 23 trillion dollars at the rate of $1,000 per second, nonstop 24/7. Get out your calculator if you want to follow along. Well, there are 60 seconds in a minute, so in the very first minute we will have paid off $60,000. It would take our minimum wage worker two years to earn that amount. With 60 minutes in an hour, we will have paid off $3,600,000. A lot of people don’t earn that much in a year. With 24 hours in a day, we will have paid off $86,400,000 by the end of our first day.
Using 365.25 days in a year (to adjust for leap years) every trillion dollars the government spends amounts to more than $31,000 per second. That is more than our $15 per hour minimum wage worker will earn in a year.
Surely, at that rate it shouldn’t take us too long to pay down the debt. Right? Actually, wrong! At the end of our first year we will have paid off only $31,557,600,000. That’s over thirty one billion dollars. But divide 23 trillion by that number to see how many years it will take to pay off the debt at $1,000 per second. It will take over 728 years!
It is difficult to project that far into the future, so let’s get into our magical time machine, and go back into the past. How far back would we have to go to get started to come close to paying off the national debt at $1,000 per second non-stop? We would have to have started in the year 1292, or 200 years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
Now here is the really scary part. In 2019 the federal government spent over $30,000 more per second then it took in by way of taxes. And the figures for fiscal 2020 are projected to be the same.
Good luck paying off the national debt.
But it gets even worse if you factor in the cost of all the freebies that some of the Democratic presidential contenders are promising. Everything that the government provides does have a cost. Just as a birthday gift is free to the recipient, it isn’t without cost to the gift giver.
No one knows with certainty the true cost of all those promised freebies, but there are a number of estimates. Let’s leave aside the estimated cost of free child care, free college tuition, forgiving student debt, and any other promised freebie other than Medicare for all. Back in October of 2019, an article in the Atlantic titled “The Eye-Popping Cost of Medicare for All” by Ronald Brownstein contained this statement:
“The Urban Institute, a center-left think tank highly respected among Democrats, is projecting that a plan similar to what Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders are pushing would require $34 trillion in additional federal spending over its first decade in operation. That’s more than the federal government’s total cost over the coming decade for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid combined, according to the most recent Congressional Budget Office projections.”
Using 365.25 days in a year (to adjust for leap years) every trillion dollars the government spends amounts to more than $31,000 per second. That is more than our $15 per hour minimum wage worker will earn in a year. The government has two basic sources of revenue: borrowing and taxes. Assuming a population of 350 million, every trillion dollars costs everyone $2,857. So just multiply that by 3.4 to get the cost for each person for each year of “free Medicare for All.” Those freebies won’t be free for those of us who pay taxes.
Howard Lurie is an Emeritus Professor of Law, Villanova University, Charles Widger School of Law.
Please support Broad + Liberty. We rely on the generosity
of donors to continue publishing great work.