The national debt is big and getting bigger. Does it matter?




The clock currently reads $28 trillion, give or take, and will grow rapidly in the coming years. The coronavirus pandemic has cost the U.S. economy $16 trillion, give or take, and Congress appropriated more than $3 trillion in aid in 2020.


The United States has had an up-and-down relationship with debt. One of Congress’s first actions was to assume states’ Revolutionary War debt in exchange for moving the country’s permanent capital to Washington, D.C. Alexander Hamilton saw collective debt as a way to build the nation — and its international credit — and bind the several states together in common cause.


“I believe it a national curse,” Jackson said in 1824. “My vow shall be to pay the national debt, to prevent a monied aristocracy from growing up around our administration that must bend it to its views, and ultimately destroy the liberty of our country.”

Jackson followed through on his promise, vetoing virtually every spending bill and using federal funds to pay down the debt until it was fully paid off in 1837 — right before a six-year economic depression that pumped it back up again.

World War II ballooned the debt as the nation ratcheted up defense spending to finance the war, causing the country’s debt to rise to more than 100% of gross domestic product. (Debt is usually measured as a percentage of GDP to make it comparable across different periods of time.)

Author(s): Hannah Lang

Publication Date: 3 March 2021

Publication Site: American Banker