The national debt is just over $13 trillion. That's $13 million million. If you divide the number by the U.S. Census Bureau’s world and U.S. population figures, that's nearly $42,000 for every man, woman and child in the United States and almost $1,900 for every human being on the planet.
So it's understandable that a lot of candidates would want to talk about it, especially after Congress passed a landmark health-care bill that, critics contend, will add to that deficit.
One is Bill Clegg, one of four Republicans who have filed to run for Congress against incumbent Democrat Rep. James Langevin in the 2nd District. On the "Federal Spending" tab of his "Issues" page, Clegg talks about how the cost of government has increased, beginning with a reference to the speaker of the House.
(The web posting was written before the health-care bill passed, so the “over $12-trillion” number in the following quote was true at the time.)
"And so Nancy Pelosi announced to the world her sophisticated rationale for a horrible health care bill that our elected officials attempted to ram down our throats. That was the first time when the so-called reform legislation contained such noxious provisions as mandated coverage, free rides for certain officials for their votes (think Nebraska and Senator Ben Nelson), and sleight-of-hand accounting that would add trillions to the deficit -- which is already over $12 trillion and increases at $3 million per second. As I write this, we have yet to see the fate of the latest 'bi-partisan' health legislation but you can bet it won't be cheap."
What intrigued us was the assertion that the deficit was increasing by $3 million each second.
(Actually, Clegg was referring to the national debt. As readers pointed out to us after this item was published, the deficit is typically used to refer to how much the government is in debt at the end of each fiscal year, terms we confused as well.)
Anyway, we did some math.
Three million dollars per second, times 60 seconds in a minute, times 60 minutes in an hour, times 24 hours in a day, times 365 days in a year totals out to $94.6 trillion in debt per year, more than seven times the actual debt.
Clearly, $3 million per second claim is off base.
So we emailed Clegg, and asked where he got it from.
"I am not near my files at present so I'll get back to you but I suspect it's a math error," he responded. When we asked him a few days later if he had any luck tracking down the number, he said, "No, but it has to be an error so I'm going to revise it."
By July 1, he had a new website where the "issues" page didn't have that claim, but the old page was still available.
In the meantime, we checked out a few of the online “national debt clocks” that purport to track the debt and found something interesting: they don't agree, and the difference can be dramatic.
We froze three of them at 3:54 p.m. on June 25. The tally was $13,109,715,680,330 at USDebtClock.org, $13,104,984,133,395 at BabylonToday.com ($4.7 billion lower), and
$13,026,442,384,744 ($78.5 billion lower still) at DefeatTheDebt.com.
We also checked how long it took for the clocks to add $3 million to the tally. They ranged from as little as 65 seconds for BabylonToday.com, to as long as 261 seconds for DefeatTheDebt.com, with USDebtClock.org coming in the middle, at 129 seconds.
So what's the real number?
That’s a good question.
We found a federal debt table published by the Office of Management and Budget that listed a deficit of $11.876 trillion at the end of 2009. We subtracted it from the debt of $13.787 trillion projected for the end of 2010. That left $1.911 trillion. Dividing that by the number of seconds in a year gives a national debt that is increasing by $60,597 per second, and it takes just under 50 seconds to add $3 million to the debt.
Or you can look at how fast the debt has actually been accumulating, according to the Bureau of the Public Debt, a small agency within the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Data from its web page, which allows you to see how the debt has increased during any time frame since 1993, shows that from June 1, 2009 to June 1, 2010, the debt went from $11,379,966,189,575.05 (yes, they calculate it down to the penny) to $13,050,826,460,886.97, an increase of $1.67 trillion for the year, or $52,982.63 per second. So, using these historical numbers, it takes just under 57 seconds to rack up $3 million.
For the record, the two agencies don’t agree on what the debt was last Dec. 31. OMB says the debt was $11.876 trillion. The Bureau of Public Debt - which says it uses a daily tally, not estimates - reports that it was $12.145 trillion, a difference we couldn’t immediately resolve.
In any case, neither number is even close to the candidate's claim of $3 million added to the debt each second.
So in the final tally, the Truth-O-Meter rates it as False.