National Debt Buys 3.8 Billion Super Bowl Tickets

Posted: Aug 13, 2011 12:01 AM

Quick: how many zeros in a trillion?  The answer is 12, so many that the average, run-of-the-mill $10 calculator displays an error message when asked to calculate that high.  If a calculator can’t wrap its digital mind around our national debt, then how can we expect Americans to understand how big it is and the impact it will have on our children.  It’s almost unfair to expect Americans to recognize the fiscal cliff on which we are teetering.

Bob Sullivan, author of Stop Getting Ripped Off, explains that Americans are abysmal at math and that may be one of the reasons so many got caught in the mortgage meltdown. In fact, more than 50 percent of Americans scored “basic” or “below basic” on a U.S. Department of Education adult quantitative literacy test meaning even when provided specifics for each situation they could not determine if a car has enough fuel to get to the next gas station, calculate the cost of raising a child for a year or calculate the cost of ordering office supplies.

Sullivan provides a sample question.  From the menu below, order a Lancaster Special sandwich and onion soup. Now, how much would you need to leave for a 10 percent tip?


Onion Soup


Soup of the Day



Beef Burger


Wine cheddar-cheese burger


Blue-cheese burger


Pineapple burger


Bacon burger


Wine cheddar-cheese & bacon burger



Sliced turkey – garnished


Turkey salad – garnished


Chicken salad – garnished


Tuna fish salad – garnished


Sliced beef tongue -- garnished


Grilled wine cheddar-cheese


The Lancaster special


The two items total $2.55, so technically the answer is 25.5 cents. According to Sullivan either 25 or 26 cents is an “acceptable answer.” Not a tough question, yet only 42 percent of adults got it right.  Now, ask your kids if they know the answer.

Making a gigantic number like our $14.6 trillion national debt mean something to a population that may struggle with math is the challenge for those of us who advocate for cutting government spending and actually reducing the national debt.  How do we make it real?

To help Americans understand the sheer size of the national debt, it helps to look at it in different terms, to which many Americans, both men and women, may relate. Lisa Evans of Masters in Economics published a blog post titled “20 Informative and Outlandish Ways to Illustrate the U.S. National Debt.”

A few of Evan’s examples:

·        Want to go to the Super Bowl? “With tickets for last year’s Super Bowl averaging $3,676 per seat, the U.S. debt could buy tickets for 3.8 billion people to next year’s game.”

·        Got to have your caffeine fix? At an average of $3 per cup, you could buy 4.6 trillion cups of Starbucks coffee or 575 cups each for eight billion people.

A few of my own ideas for putting the national debt into normal person perspective:

·        Ladies, remember 1980s Pappagallo purses with their interchangeable covers? The 2011 version is the Miche handbag. At Accessories with a Flair and Hair in Northern Colorado, the price of a large “base bag” (my favorite) is $45 and one shell, interchangeable cover, is $45.  With the national debt, we could purchase each of the 157,000,000 women in the U.S. one base bag and 1,967 shells.  Then we’d have to buy an outfit for each cover.

·        With our national debt we could get every U.S. woman 465 outfits at $200 a piece.

·        Every woman should be entitled to enjoy a pair of $1,466 Prada boots and $660 flats. In fact, if our national debt was available in cash every U.S. woman could enjoy 43 boots/flats combinations.

·        One of my favorite wines is MontGras Reserva Carmenere on sale right now for $9 per bottle. The national debt would buy 135,185,185,185 cases or 678 for the roughly 200 million people over age 25.

·        For the golfers. At $50 for 18 holes and cart fees at our taxpayer subsidized public course, our national debt would purchase 11145 rounds of golf for America’s 26.2 million golfers.

·        Want to fill up your car? There are roughly 254.4 million passenger vehicles registered in the U.S. with an average 16-gallon gas tank. At $3.60 per gallon, our national debt could purchase nearly 1000 tanks of gas for each registered vehicle.

The $14.6 trillion national debt is massive, outrageous, gigantic or any one of a variety of synonyms.

If you have ideas for putting it into perspective for the rest of America, please send your mathematical equivalents to

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