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National Debt: What Is It?

The government owes debts to citizens, global investors, other governments, and even itself.

If you notice a yellow highlight on the page, hover over it for the definition!

You have probably heard by now that the national debt is the biggest it has ever been and that it’s only growing, as each year sees a new record high.  But what is the national debt? And why should we be worried?

Spending Out of Control

The national debt, also known as sovereign debt, is the debt owed by the federal government. It is separated into two parts: public – which the government owes to citizens, global investors, and other governments – and intragovernmental, which is what the government owes to other government departments.

Every time the government spends more than it takes in, this creates a budget deficit, which gets added to the national debt. However, if Congress takes in more than it spends, creating a budget surplus, then it is subtracted from the national debt.

Those who prefer some debt assert that modest increases in the debt can contribute to economic growth. Critics will make the case that the debt takes away capital (money) from the private sector to give it to the public sector, which is known for waste and fraud.

Fast Facts

The U.S. national debt topped $23 trillion in 2019 as the federal deficit was close to climbing above $1 trillion. It is difficult to quantify, but perhaps it can be done with some frightening examples.

China and Japan, collectively, own approximately $3 trillion to $4 trillion in Treasurys. Every taxpayer in the U.S. owes roughly $183,000.

It would take more than 700,000 years if the country repaid the debt $1 every second.

The Costs Are Adding Up

To understand just how out of control spending and debt have become, consider this fact: The old New Deal cost Americans $50 billion between 1933 and 1940. The future cost of these same New Deal programs is in the ballpark of $50 trillion (and counting!) when you calculate their expansions, add-ons, and interest.

Can America afford to spend more? The answer depends on your position on the political spectrum.

Andrew Moran

Economics Correspondent at and Andrew has written extensively on economics, business, and political subjects for the last decade. He also writes about economics at Economic Collapse News and commodities at He is the author of “The War on Cash.” You can learn more at

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