National Debt
copyright 2010 by Tim Griffin

Well you know that the federal government spends
A whole lot of money on national defense,
Agriculture and education
And all kinds of projects all over the nation

Putting down asphalt and picking up trash
But do you ever think about where we get the cash
To pay for all those those wonderful things
That life in a modern democracy brings?

Of course it’s the taxes that we all pay
But you know sometimes, I’m sorry to say
That as good as we are at bringing it in
We’re a whole lot better at spending

(chorus) You can talk about it with your dad or your mama, maybe write a letter to Barack Obama
Ride to D.C. on a horse or a llama and ask your senators what they’re gonna
Do about the debt getting out of control, put the next generation in a great big hole
Or make a plan, maybe set a goal to pay that national debt?

Now if you’re collecting five dollars a day
But you’re spending six, you know there ain’t no way
You’re gonna keep that up, you could spend less
But there’s three other ways you can fix that mess (it’s all right, I’m an economist…)

The first way to do it’s by raising taxes, but you can imagine how popular that is
Pay for our government services? No way!
The second choice is to print more money, but that makes the prices of things do a funny
Thing called inflation, which is why penny candy costs a quarter today.

There’s one more choice the government has, and that’s to borrow the money, just as
A guy with a credit card can buy stuff, then not pay it off at the end of the month
And borrowing works pretty well for a while, the voters are happy and the senators smile
But while they’re smiling the debt keeps piling up… and up…

(repeat chorus)

Now it’s hard to understand fourteen trillion*
‘Cause fourteen million times a million
Is a number so big it makes people want to plug their ears

To really understand it might require
That you set a hundred dollar bill on fire
Then do it again once every second for the next four thousand years

Or you could think about the debt like you’re digging a hole:
You dig an inch for every twenty thousand bucks we owe
You’ll dig straight through the planet and right out the other side

So if you wonder why some folks are getting sore
It’s ‘cause the debt’s so big it’s getting hard to ignore
So what we gonna do to stem that rising tide?

(repeat chorus)

…Leave the next generation in a great big hole or pay that national debt…

*The debt was 13 trillion when I wrote the song, 14 trillion by the time I recorded it, and has grown considerably since.


As with many of my songs, this one came out of a challenge from a colleague. “Tim, you’ve written songs about most fields of science,” a teacher friend said. “Botany, zoology, astronomy, even boogers; but never a song about economics.” That got me thinking. While we were discussing ideas, a six-year-old girl (my friend was teaching first grade) pointed out that I had also never written a song with a llama in it. I had to hang my head in shame, for this was true.

Plenty of my songs have gone obsolete, but this one had to be updated before we even finished the album: the debt went from 13 trillion to 14 trillion so quickly I could not get the song out fast enough. Since then the debt has blown right through 15 and 16 to 17 trillion and climbing fast. If you want to raise your blood pressure, <a href="" target="_blank"> you can track the debt in real time here. </a>

I wrote “National Debt” before the Common Core standards for math came along and made a big deal about mathematical practices along with computation, but the song works pretty well for those standards (see below). Note that numbers in the trillions are nowhere specified in the K-8 standards, but I find that bringing in really huge numbers from time to time is a great way to emphasize the fundamental nature of base-ten mathematics. And the debt is certainly huge.

Now a personal rant about math and the arts. Math, at its core, is a tightly connected series of strictly defined generalizations and metaphors, i.e. the very useful idea that seven apples have something important in common with seven minivans. The arts, of course, are all about metaphor. In the case of inconceivably large numbers (how do you wrap your brain around trillions, really?), I contend that the ONLY way to grasp them is in terms of metaphor.

And yes, I did calculate how many years you’d have to be burning a $100 bill every second, how much money for each inch of the Earth’s diameter, etc. Actually, that’s not true; I made my 4th grade students do all that work. Like I always tell my students, I don’t actually do any work here: I’m a teacher.

Here are some standards from the Common Core and the state of California addressed in this song:

Fourth Grade:

  • M4.NBT.1. Recognize that in a multi-digit whole number, a digit in one place represents ten times what it represents in the place to its right. For example, recognize that 700 ÷ 70 = 10 by applying concepts of place value and division. Generalize place value understanding for multi-digit whole numbers.
  • CA.SS4.5.1. Discuss what the U.S. Constitution is and why it is important (i.e., a written document that defines the structure and purpose of the U.S. government and describes the shared powers of federal, state, and local governments).

Fifth Grade:

  • M5.NBT. Understand the place value system. 1: Recognize that in a multi-digit number, a digit in one place represents 10 times as much as it represents in the place to its right and 1/10 of what it represents in the place to its left. 2: Explain patterns in the number of zeros of the product when multiplying a number by powers of 10, and explain patterns in the placement of the decimal point when a decimal is multiplied or divided by a power of 10. Use whole-number exponents to denote powers of 10.
  • M5.G.5.2. Represent real world and mathematical problems by graphing points in the first quadrant of the coordinate plane, and interpret coordinate values of points in the context of the situation.
  • CA.SS5.7.3. Understand the fundamental principles of American constitutional democracy, including how the government derives its power from the people and the primacy of individual liberty.
  • CA.SS5.7.4. Understand how the Constitution is designed to secure our liberty by both empower­ ing and limiting central government and compare the powers granted to citizens, Congress, the president, and the Supreme Court with those reserved to the states.

Sixth Grade:

  • M6.RP. Understand ratio concepts and use ratio reasoning to solve problems.

Seventh Grade:

  • M7.RP. Analyze proportional relationships and use them to solve real-world and mathematical problems.

Eighth Grade:

  • M.8.F. Use functions to model relationships between quantities.
  • M.8.EE.1. Know and apply the properties of integer exponents to generate equivalent numerical expressions.
  • CA.SS8.2.6. Enumerate the powers of government set forth in the Constitution and the fundamental liberties ensured by the Bill of Rights.

General Mathematical Practices from the Common Core:

  • MP #2: Mathematically proficient students make sense of quantities and their relationships in problem situations… creating a coherent representation of the problem at hand; considering the units involved; attending to the meaning of quantities, not just how to compute them.
  • MP #4: Mathematically proficient students can apply the mathematics they know to solve problems arising in everyday life, society, and the workplace.

E, A, B, E7, A7, B7. You can leave out the 7th’s if you find them too difficult.