I almost don’t know how to read these numbers

The American Dream

The American Dream

I’m reading Bill Bryson’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself.  It is, in fact, a pretty awesome book for a number of reasons.  First, Bill Bryson is a great writer.  I first encountered him when reading The Mother Tongue for a liguistics class in college.  He’s funny, insightful, and wicked smart.  Second, it’s a collection of newspaper columns he wrote after returning to the US after 20 years in Britain.  This means that I can read “chapters” quickly and find a stopping point easily.  I feel as if I’m flying through this book because I’m already on 14!  Fourteen!  With no effort at all!  Third, it’s giving me a new way to look at everything I take for granted.

“Chapter” 14 is called The Numbers Game.  It’s about large numbers.  This book was published in 1999, but presumably these columns were written around 1996.  In this chapter he mentions the National Debt Clock in New York.


If you remember, last year the clock had to do away with the dollar sign in order to add another diget.  If you don’t live in New York, you can keep track of the National Debt here.  When Bill wrote his column, the national debt was $4,533,603,804,000.  The debt has nearly tripled in 13 years.  Sort of takes the guessing out of why everyone is in finacial freakout these days.

This debt includes everything–not just credit cards.  I’m sure my personal debt is far lower than most people’s.  I have no credit card debt, and have never in my life carried a balance more than a couple months.  I do have student loans, and while I think they are completely excessive (by my standards), I know that they could be worse, and no one can reposses my education, blah blah blah.  But still, debt frightens me, and it frightens me even more to see a number as huge as $11 trillion.  Trillion.

I’m going to bury my head in my book again, and hopefully speed through the trillion chapter.  It would truly be lovely to see that dollar sign come back to the clock.  Think it will ever happen?


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