(CNSNews.com) – Testifying in the U.S Senate yesterday, Congressional Budget Office Director Keith Hall warned that the publicly held debt of the U.S. government, when measured as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product, is headed toward a level the United States has seen only once in its history—at the end of World War II.
To simply contain the debt at the high historical level where it currently sits—74 percent of GDP–would require either significant increases in federal tax revenue or decreases in non-interest federal spending (or a combination of the two).
Historically, U.S. government debt held by the public, measured as a percentage of GDP, hit its peak in 1945 and 1946, when it was 104 percent and 106 percent of GDP respectively.
In 2015, the CBO estimates that the U.S. government debt held by the public will be 74 percent of GDP. That is higher than the 69-percent-of-GDP debt the U.S. government had in 1943—the second year after Pearl Harbor.
By 2039, CBO projects, the debt held by the public will increase to 101 percent of GDP and by 2040 to 103 percent GDP. At that point, Hall told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, the “debt would still be on an upward path relative to the size of the economy.”
The U.S. Treasury divides the federal debt into two main parts: debt held by the public and intragovernmental debt. The debt held by the public includes Treasury securities such as Treasury bills, notes and bonds that are owned by individuals, domestic and foreign corporations, private banks, the Federal Reserve Bank, and foreign governments. The Treasury pays interest on this debt to those who own it. The intragovernmental debt is money the Treasury owes to government trust funds–such as the Social Security trust funds–because the government has spent money belonging to those trust funds (i.e. Social Security payroll taxes) on things other than what the trust fund was created to fund (i.e. Social Security).
As of July 9, according to the Treasury, the debt held by the public was $13,102,609,587,775 and the intragovernmental debt was $5,049,321,696,720. That equaled a total debt of $18,151,931,284,495.
“Mainly because of the aging of the population and rising health care costs, the extended baseline projections show revenues that fall well short of spending over the long term, producing a substantial imbalance in the federal budget,” Hall said in his written testimony.
“As a result, budget deficits are projected to rise steadily and, by 2040, to raise federal debt held by the public to a percentage of GDP seen at only one previous time in U.S. history—the final year of World War II and the following year,” he said.
“Moreover,” he said, “debt would still be on an upward path relative to the size of the economy. Consequently, the policy changes needed to reduce debt to any given amount would become larger and larger over time. The rising debt could not be sustained indefinitely; the government’s creditors would eventually begin to doubt its ability to cut spending or raise revenues by enough to pay its debt obligations, forcing the government to pay much higher interest rates to borrow money.”
Eventually, the nation would face a crisis—with wary investors demanding “much higher interest” rates to buy U.S. government debt.