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What Happens to the National Debt Clock If the U.S. Defaults?

Stan Honda/Getty Images

Update: The Durst Organization emailed Wednesday afternoon, saying, contrary to what he told me Tuesday evening, “Just learned it won't freeze, it will slow. Interest will continue to accrue.”

Atlantis World Media’s building sits at the corner of 6th Avenue and 42nd Street. It is here that the most earnest brand of politics imaginable is practiced on “News Night” by anchor Will McAvoy, champion of sensible moderation.

Of course, that’s TV. (Or rather, it’s HBO.) In real life, One Bryant Park is called the Bank of America Tower, and it, too, houses one of the more earnest public enactments of the centrist sensibility: the National Debt Clock, an electronic billboard which lists, and constantly updates, both the total national debt and the amount per family. (According to the U.S. Treasury, as of last Friday the national debt was $16,747,411,584,091.53—although perhaps China would just as soon we hold on to the pennies.) The clock is the not-for-profit work of the Durst Organization, the real estate firm that developed the building; it was originated by Seymour Durst a quarter-century ago.

But the National Debt Clock begs an inevitable question: What if Washington fails to reach a deal on the debt ceiling by Thursday evening and the U.S. government, as is expected, defaults?

“If the debt stops, the clock stops,” a Durst Organization spokesperson reached Tuesday evening said. Not immediately, mind you: The clock runs according to an algorithm that calculates the debt, and is then “truthed” to the debt once a week. So in the event of default, the clock actually will continue to run an extra few days, like fingernails growing on a corpse, until the “truthing” happens, at which point the clock will freeze.

The clock was most recently in the news almost exactly five years ago, when the Durst Organization was forced to add a digit to accommodate the debt’s cracking of $10 trillion. A year later, Jonathan Durst, the president, told The New York Times, “During the Clinton administration it wasn’t designed to go backward, so we had to alter the electronics.” Them’s was the days.