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18 Scary US Debt Facts

Updated July 13, 2011
The current debate on the debt ceiling brings up facts, figures and terms that most Americans weren't taught in high school. To help out, it's time to dredge up lots of scary facts to make you pay attention. I know the words can sound wonky, but this really matters, so stay with me!

Before we get going, a quick primer on the number TRILLION.

  • $1 trillion = $1,000 billion or $1,000,000,000,000 (that's 12 zeros).
  • At his current annual salary of $42 million, basketball superstar LeBron James would need to work 23,809 years to earn $1 trillion.
  • How hard is it to spend a trillion dollars? If you spent one dollar every second, you would have spent a million dollars in twelve days. At that same rate, it would take you 32 years to spend a billion dollars. But it would take you more than 31,000 years to spend a trillion dollars.
And now, some scary facts about the debt and the deficit -- some basics:
  • Deficit = Money government Takes In - Money government Spends
  • Current US deficit = $1.3 Trillion
  • National debt = Total amount borrowed to fund the annual deficit
  • Current national debt = $14.3 trillion (or $46,410 per every man, woman and child in the US or $122,029 per taxpayer)
OK, let's get started!
  1. The U.S. national debt on January 1st, 1791 was just $75 million dollars. Today, the U.S. national debt rises by that amount about once an hour.
  2. Our nation began its existence in debt after borrowing money to finance the Revolutionary War. President Andrew Jackson nearly eliminated the debt, calling it a "national curse." Jackson railed against borrowing, spending and even banks, for that matter, and he tried to eliminate all federal debt. By January 1, 1835, under Jackson, the debt was just $33,733.
  3. When World War II ended, the debt equaled 122 percent of GDP (GDP is a measure of the entire economy). In the 1950s and 1960s the economy grew at an average rate of 4.3 percent a year and the debt gradually declined to 38 percent of GDP in 1970. This year, the Office of Budget and Management expects that the debt will equal 95 percent.
  4. Since 1938, the national debt has increased at an average annual rate of 8.5 percent. The only exceptions to the constant annual increase over the last 62 years were Clinton and Johnson - note that this is the rate of growth - the national debt still existed under both presidents. During the Clinton Presidency, debt growth was almost zero. Johnson averaged 3 percent growth of debt for the six years he served (1963-69).
  5. When Ronald Reagan took office, the U.S. national debt was just under $1 trillion. When he left office it was $2.6 trillion. During the eight Regan years, the US moved from being the world's largest international creditor to the largest debtor nation.
  6. The U.S. national debt has more than doubled since the year 2000
    • Under President Bush: at the end of calendar year 2000, the debt stood at $5.629 trillion. Eight years later, the federal debt stood at $9.986 trillion.
    • Under President Obama: The debt started at $9.986 trillion and escalated to $13.7 trillion, a 38 percent increase over two years.
  7. Obama's most recently proposed budget anticipates $5.08 trillion in deficits over the next five years
  8. The U.S. national debt rises at an average of approximately $3.8 billion per day.
  9. The US government now borrows approximately $5 billion every business day.
  10. A trillion $10 bills, if they were taped end to end, would wrap around the globe more than 380 times. That amount of money would still not be enough to pay off the U.S. national debt.
  11. In 2010, the U.S. government issued almost as much new debt as the rest of the governments of the world combined.
  12. Total US government debt as a percentage of GDP was 94 percent in 2010. Greece, the poorest step-sister of the European Union, is now expected to see debt peak at 172 percent of its annual economic output, substantially higher than the 150 percent of GDP estimated when the joint IMF-European Union rescue was approved last year.
  13. The U.S. government has such a voracious appetite for debt that the rest of the world simply doesn't have enough money to lend us. So now the Federal Reserve is buying most U.S. debt, and the only reason it can do that is because it can create money to lend out of thin air -- at the mint's printing presses!
  14. According to the 2008 Financial Report of the United States Government, an official US government report, the total liabilities of the United States government, including future Social Security and Medicare payments that the U.S. government is already committed to pay out, now exceed $65 TRILLION.
  15. The debt ceiling is the maximum amount of debt that Congress allows for the government. The current debt ceiling is $14.29 trillion. Treasury Secretary Geithner says the government will breach the debt ceiling on August 2, 2011, unless lawmakers vote to increase it. The U.S. government's debt ceiling has been raised six times since the beginning of 2006.
  16. With the exception of fiscal years 1998-2001, from 1969 to today, Congress has spent more money than it collected in revenue, (ran a deficit). Treasury has to borrow money to meet Congress's appropriations.
  17. In 2009, Federal spending accounted for 24.7 percent of GDP, higher than it's been in any year since 1949. You have to go back to 1946 to find a higher percentage -- 24.8 -- and that was a year in which the nation was winding down high rates of spending for World War II. (From 1943 to 1945, the height of the war, federal spending ranged from 41 percent to 43 percent of GDP.)
  18. The U.S. government has to borrow 41 cents of every dollar that it currently spends.
You can track the national debt on a daily basis here.
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