Teaching Physics with the Physics Suite

Edward F. Redish

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The Federal Deficit

In this election year, lots of big numbers are thrown at you and it takes some effort to make sense of them. Try doing it with the following estimations. (You might consider some of these questions ambiguous or poorly defined. If you think they need further specification, do it and answer the specific problem you have stated.)

a. Presidential candidates are fond of shaking voters' hands. If a candidate had all the eligible voters in the US lined up, estimate how long it would take him to shake all their hands.

b. This year's Federal US budget is about $3 x 1012 (3 trillion dollars) including "off-budget expenditures". About half of that goes for various types of insurance. (Old age insurance = Social Security, Medical insurance = Medicare + Medicaid) About how much is each person paying for the functioning of the government - supporting the military, regulation of food, support for the transportation infrastructure, scientific research (a very small part!)?

c. The Federal income this year is expected to be about $0.4 x 1012 (400 billion dollars) less than the outgo. If someone (Bill Gates?) decided to pay this shortfall and brought it in $1 bills, how big an area would they cover? (Compare your result to something we know - a football field, a city, a state, a country, a planet - whatever seems appropriate.)

d. How much is the Federal government putting you as an individual in debt as a result of this year's shortfall? (Assuming you take your fair share of the debt.)

e. Do any of the four items above help you think about the size of the federal budget and its deficit? Explain why or why not.

(Here's a web site to explore the US budget numbers!)

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Page last modified February 8, 2006