Good Question: How did the U.S. debt get so high? (2024)

Good Question

By Jeff Wagner

/ CBS Minnesota

MINNEAPOLIS — If you wince when look at your monthly credit card bill, you might not believe what the U.S. government has racked up.

The national debt now tops more than $34 trillion. That's a new record difficult to comprehend — and there are no signs of slowing it down.

How did the debt get so high? And will it need to be paid off?

Well, that goal might be wishful thinking.

The debt is one of the rare times people have a chance to use the word "trillion" in a sentence without exaggerating some number.

It stands at $34,009,690,055,595 as of Jan. 9. Elon Musk, the world's richest person, is worth more than $241 billion. You'd need at least 140 of him to equal the debt.

"The first thing is about one-fourth to one-third of it doesn't count," said Christopher Phelan, an economics professor at the University of Minnesota. "It's debt that's held by another part of the government. So, it would be like the wife owing the husband money. It doesn't affect the household. But the rest of it is still a huge number."


How did the U.S. accrue such a huge debt? One of the main culprits is consistently overspending. When the federal government spends more than its budget, it creates a deficit. In the fiscal year of 2023, it spent about $381 billion more than it collected in revenues.

To pay that deficit, the government borrows money. That can happen by selling marketable securities like treasury bonds. The national debt is the accumulation of the borrowed money, plus interest.

"Right now the federal government is spending 1.5 times as much as its taking in. So, an analogy that I'd like to give is imagine that a couple is making $80,000 between the two of them and spending $120,000 a year," said Phelan. We asked him if the U.S. is the equivalent of a person who only makes the minimum payments on a credit card. Phelan took it a step further saying, "The U.S. is like somebody who makes less than the minimum payment on their credit card."

The country was literally built on debt. It was $75 million in the red after the Revolutionary War thanks to loans from investors and countries like France.

The Civil War led a to a huge spike, raising the debt from $65 million in 1860 to nearly $3 billion in 1865 when the war ended. Costly wars proved to be a theme in our nation's history. The debt was at $49 billion right before the U.S. entered World War II. When the war ended, it was $260 billion. It began rising at a fast rate in the 1980's and was accelerated through events like the Iraq Wars and the 2008 Great Recession. Most recently, the debt made another big jump thanks to the pandemic with the federal government spending significantly more than it took in to keep the country running.

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Who do we owe the money to? "Mostly ourselves," said Phelan. "A lot of pension funds own government debt, money market funds own government debt and then people own those money market funds." The U.S. also has debts to other countries.

Where does the money come from that would go towards paying off the debt? It ultimately comes down to the U.S. taxpayers. That means in order to pay it off, or at least make a larger dent in the debt, the federal government would have to raise taxes and cut spending. "The problem is way bigger than if we just cut foreign aid," said Phelan.

With such a high debt, how does the country function? Phelan said it comes down to the debt to gross domestic product (GDP) ratio. That equation shows a country's ability to pay down its debt. "This ratio is considered a better indicator of a country's fiscal situation than just the national debt number because it shows the burden of debt relative to the country's total economic output and therefore its ability to repay it," according to the U.S. Treasury's website.

The current ratio in the U.S. is about 123 percent as of Sept. 2023. Two decades earlier in 2003, it was down to 60 percet. According to CEIC, the highest the ratio ever reached in the U.S. was 130.6 percent in March 2021, roughly one year into the pandemic.

While the ratio remains high for the country, Phelan said other countries are worse off, yet continue to run. Japan has a debt to GDP ratio that's well over 200 percent, but that doesn't mean countries should comfortably operate at those levels for a long time. "There is a limit, and it's determined by when potential bond buyers say 'I don't think I'm gonna get the money back.' And they demand a huge interest rate for risk of not getting the money back," said Phelan, adding how that concern hasn't happened yet for the U.S.

  • Debt Ceiling
  • National Debt

Jeff Wagner

Jeff Wagner joined the WCCO-TV team in November 2016 as a general assignment reporter, and now anchors WCCO's Saturday evening newscasts. Although he's new to Minnesota, he's called the Midwest home his entire life.

Good Question: How did the U.S. debt get so high? (2024)
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