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America owes $10 trillion! No, $50 trillion! Let me explain.

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Joshua Lott/Reuters/File

(Read caption) The National Debt Clock hangs from a building near Times Square in New York last year. Deciding what to include as America's debt is a tricky exercise.

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America is deep in debt. But how deep?

That question seems simple, yet analysts and pundits give answers that differ by trillions of dollars. Sometimes tens of trillions. That confusion arises because there are various ways to tote up America's debts.

Many observers often focus on the publicly held debt – the bonds that the Treasury has sold into financial markets. By that measure, the federal government owed a bit more than $10 trillion at the end of last fiscal year.

That figure is important because it measures how much the federal government has had to rely on outside investors. For that reason, it does not include the special Treasury bonds in the Social Security Trust Fund and similar accounts owned by the federal government itself. From an accounting perspective, those bonds net to zero – a part of the government owes money to another part. But they are important to Social Security legally and politically. Some analysts use a measure that includes the trust funds, bringing the federal debt to more than $14 trillion.

That's not the only measurement disagreement. Social Security and Medicare reflect a major commitment to seniors in the years ahead, but the government hasn't identified enough dedicated financing to pay for them. Some analysts believe these unfunded amounts should be viewed as debts as well. Their size depends on technical factors like the future growth rate of health spending and how far you look into the future. Depending on their choices, analysts can get huge measures of indebtedness: $50 trillion or more.

This range of figures – $10 trillion, $14 trillion, $50 trillion – sows confusion about how indebted the United States is. Yet none of them captures all of America's debts. The government has a host of other obligations that often get overlooked.

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