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What is the Size of our National Debt?

Understanding the Size of the National Debt: Implications and Drivers

The national debt of a country represents the total amount of money that the government owes to its creditors. In the case of the United States, the national debt includes both debt held by the public and intergovernmental debt. The size of the national debt is a significant indicator of a country's financial health and has implications for its economy and future generations. In this article, we will explore the size of the national debt, its impact, and the key drivers behind it.

The Size of the National Debt

As of May 2023, the United States national debt stood at a staggering $31.46 trillion. This immense figure encompasses the outstanding financial obligations of the federal government. It is important to note that the national debt is the sum of past annual budget deficits, reflecting the government's borrowing to cover expenses.

Impact of the National Debt

The national debt has both immediate and long-term implications for the economy and society as a whole. Here are some key impacts:

Interest Payments: The national debt requires the government to pay interest on the borrowed funds. As the debt grows, so do the interest payments. These interest payments can consume a significant portion of the government's budget, diverting funds from other critical areas such as healthcare, education, and infrastructure.

Economic Stability: A high national debt can undermine a country's economic stability. Excessive debt levels may lead to higher interest rates, which can impede economic growth and investment. It also poses a risk to the country's creditworthiness, potentially resulting in a downgrade of its credit rating.

Inflationary Pressure: When a government resorts to borrowing to finance its activities, it increases the money supply in the economy. This influx of money can lead to inflationary pressures, eroding the purchasing power of individuals and businesses.

Future Generations: The national debt burden is passed on to future generations. As the debt grows, future taxpayers may face higher taxes or reduced government services to repay the debt, potentially hampering their economic opportunities and well-being.

Several factors contribute to the growth of the national debt:

Budget Deficits: Annual budget deficits occur when government spending exceeds revenue from taxes and other sources. These deficits add to the national debt as the government resorts to borrowing to cover the shortfall.

Economic Downturns and Crisis: Economic downturns and crisis situations, such as recessions or pandemics, can significantly impact the national debt. Reduced tax revenues, increased government spending on stimulus programs, and higher levels of unemployment can lead to substantial rises in the debt.

Interest Rates and Cost of Borrowing: The cost of borrowing plays a crucial role in the growth of the national debt. When interest rates are low, the government can borrow at favorable terms, making it easier to accumulate debt. However, if interest rates rise, the cost of servicing the debt increases, adding to the overall burden.

Policy Choices: Policy decisions related to taxation, government spending, and entitlement programs can influence the trajectory of the national debt. Tax cuts, increased government spending, and changes in social welfare programs can all impact the size of the debt.

Managing and reducing the national debt requires a comprehensive approach. Some strategies that can be employed include:

Fiscal Responsibility: Governments need to implement responsible fiscal policies that balance spending and revenue generation. This involves controlling expenses, increasing tax revenues, and promoting economic growth to reduce budget deficits.

Debt Repayment and Refinancing: Governments can prioritize debt repayment and explore refinancing options to reduce interest payments and overall debt burden.

Long-term Budget Planning: Creating sustainable long-term budget plans that address entitlement programs, healthcare costs, and other major spending areas can help prevent future debt accumulation.

Economic Growth: Fostering robust economic growth through policies that promote innovation, investment, and job creation can increase government revenues and reduce reliance on borrowing.

The national debt represents a significant financial obligation that a country owes to its creditors. The size of the national debt has wide-ranging implications for the economy, society, and future generations. Understanding the drivers behind the debt and implementing sound fiscal policies are crucial steps towards addressing and managing the national debt effectively.


The total United States national debt is $19.3 trillion as of fiscal year (FY) 2016.

Total debt is near what the U.S. produces in annual GDP, and a majority of our national debt is public debt — money owed to those who have Treasury obligations. The U.S. also owes a large amount of money to foreign countries (foreign debt), but a majority of U.S. debt is held domestically.

As of June 2012, the three countries who hold the most of our national debt are: 

  • China (approximately 1.1 trillion dollars)
  • Japan (approximately 1 trillion dollars)
  • Oil Exporters (over 250 billion dollars) 

In addition to those who hold US Treasury obligations, the U.S. government is in a deep hole regarding its entitlement responsibilities such as Social Security, Medicare Programs, etc.

One underlying issue is that U.S. debt is the world's safest and most reliable, so it can generally be issued with ease and at attractive interest rates. So long as the rate of return on borrowed money exceeds interest payments, taking on debt is not a huge negative.

What is Foreign Debt?
When Will Social Security Go Bankrupt?

Disclaimers and Limitations

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