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America’s debt: what US$31 trillion looks like

By , and Published May 29, 2023

The United States has the world’s largest economy, with a GDP of US$23.3 trillion in 2021. But it also faces a huge debt challenge. Its national debt has reached US$31.4 trillion, a historic level that keeps rising with interest. This staggering sum, the world’s largest national debt, reflects years of big spending that has been far greater than what the US government has earned. The US debt-to-GDP ratio, which compares the size of the debt to the economy, also ranks among the highest in the world. What does US$31.4 trillion look like? Here is a visual guide to help understand the size of this enormous debt.

What is the debt ceiling?
The debt ceiling is the legal limit on the amount of money the US government can borrow. Since 1960, Congress has increased the debt ceiling 79 times - 49 times under Republican presidents and 30 times under Democratic presidents.

Cash for all?

Here is an interesting hypothetical: if the US government was not in debt, but awash with cash and chose to share US$31.4 trillion with its population of 332 million, each man, woman and child would receive more than US$94,000. If only the 38 million Americans living below the poverty line received a share of US$31.4 trillion, each would get about US$826,000.

All the gold

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The price of gold in May 2023 was about US$1,800 per ounce. One tonne of gold is equal to 32,150.7 troy ounces, which is a measurement used for precious metals. US$31.4 trillion could buy about 542,595 tonnes of gold. The total amount of gold mined in history is estimated to be about 197,576 tonnes.

Stack of money

US$31.4 trillion would literally be a big stack of money. Here is one way of looking at it: the thickness of the US dollar bill is about 0.11mm.

To the moon again

Speaking of the moon, Nasa’s Apollo programme from 1961 to 1972 cost an estimated US$25.4 billion in total.

Cost of war

Fighting wars costs a lot of money. According to one estimate, US-led post-September 11 wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere have cost US$8 trillion. They have been paid for almost entirely by borrowing, which has added to the US national debt. Brown University’s Costs of War Project estimates that interest payments could total over US$6.5 trillion by the 2050s.

Funding the climate fight

Year: 2023

Rich nations had promised at the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009 to channel US$100 billion a year to less wealthy nations by 2020 to help them adapt to climate change and reduce emissions. In 2022, US climate envoy John Kerry said the target would be met in 2023. In an ideal world, US$31.4 trillion could fund this climate fight until around 2330.

Associate Creative Director Marcelo Duhalde
Edited by Andrew London

Sources: World Bank, Nasa, The Planetary Society, Brown University Costs of War Project, World Gold Council, US Social Security Administration

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