What Would it Be Like to Climb 26 Years of Federal Spending?

Data is often difficult to comprehend, especially when the numbers are huge. As Sanjoy Mahajan points out, the $14.3 trillion national debt seems impossible to fathom. It’s not a numeracy problem; it’s more a question of how to divide the gigantic number into parcels we can understand. Mahajan suggests using smaller measures we can handle – namely thinking about debt in per capita terms.

Fortunately there are also some media tech folks to the rescue. This spring, two computer engineers from Minneapolis challenged designers and coders to come up with a visual program to help the public understand the U.S. federal budget. You can see the winners here. If you want a fun way to understand the cuts that Obama’s talking about, the game Budget Climb lets you physically experience 26 years of federal spending data in a virtual reality, interactive format. You can download the game at their website, and watch an intro video here:

Eric M. Jones

Sorry, but their "demonstration" seems so entirely off the mark.

Niven and Pournelle wrote a sci-fi novel "The Mote in God's Eye" (1975) which was basically a tale of meeting the first ET's. One key difference between the aliens and humans was that the Humans accepted nothing as impossible and the Aliens were not bothered by, and easily accepted, all sorts of impossibilities.

So Humans somehow believe that The Federal debt CAN BE UNDERSTOOD. The Aliens would simply understand that it can't be and they would go spend their time on other things.

Humans simply can't understand the quantity of the oceans' water, the weight of a locomotive or battleship, the number of stars in the heavens, the power of a Space Shuttle launch, a light year, the sun, the Earth, or even life itself.

This kilogram of our organic brain is a weak pink lump of flesh. It has limits. Give it a rest.


The concept is faulty because the world is not time-invariant. Yes, we spent less when there were fewer people in the country. Yes, we spent less when we earned less. A great example is health care costs--yes, we spent less when you we lived ten years less and couldn't get an MRI but would be prescribed whiskey or cocaine for a case of "nerves".


This is fine for looking at some real basics, but in no way does it show value of the debt (ie, if this was your personal debt, did you go into debt buying gobs of candy or because you bought a house or investment?) nor how it's related to the size of the country - GDP, # citizens, etc. It's just a big figure. So I'm a bit disappointed that this is misleading...