The National Debt in Five Charts

The national debt is unimaginably large and it is growing larger. The costs of caring for an aging population are driving unsustainable budget deficits far into the future. These five charts explain the problem.

1As a share of the economy, the federal debt is now larger than at any time since the end of WWII.

Chart showing the growth of the national debt,
The national debt will soon be larger than at any time since the end of WWII. (CBO)

2 The Congressional Budget Office projects that government spending will substantially exceed government revenue over the next decade. This will result in large deficits and mounting government debt.

Spending that exceeds revenue will drive large government deficits (CBO)
Spending that exceeds revenue will drive large government deficits (CBO)

3 The rising costs of popular programs such as Social Security and Medicare are the primary reason the debt is growing. However, interest payments are also a significant factor. Spending on everything else is falling as a share of the economy. So, cuts in spending in other areas, including defense, are unlikely to make a significant difference.

Increased costs of Social Security and Medicare are driving growth in the national debt. (Congressional Budget Office)
Increased costs of Social Security and Medicare are driving growth in the debt. (CBO)

4 Over the next decade, the cost of interest payments on the debt will exceed the cost of national defense. An unexpected rise in interest rates would make things far, far worse.

Interest payments on the debt with exceed spending on defense by 2025. (Roughly Explained; CBO data)

5 The cost of paying the interest on the debt is the fastest growing part of the Federal budget. As interest payments grow, there will be less money to spend on other priorities that benefit the general population. Think of it as a tax on our failure to address the debt problem.

Net Interest as Proportion of Spending (Pete Peterson Foundation)
Net Interest Relative to Other Forms of Spending (Peter G. Peterson Foundation)

The Bottom Line

We have yet to feel the effects of unsustainable government spending. This is because the demand for U.S. dollars around the world has kept interest rates relatively low. Someday the world might not need so many dollars.

When that day comes, investors will demand higher interest rates in exchange for loaning money to the U.S. government. This means the cost of interest payments will skyrocket. The government will have no choice but to impose steep tax increases and deep spending cuts to make up the gap. Also, interest rates on everything from mortgages to auto loans will likely rise as well. As a result, consumers will be less able to buy things and the economy will slow dramatically. However, by then it will be too late.

The consequences of ignoring the growing federal debt range from bad to catastrophic. The longer we wait to address it, the harder fixing it becomes.

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