The U.S. debt is over $14.5 trillion, and is the sum of all outstanding debt owed by the Federal Government. Nearly two-thirds is the public debt, which is owed to the people, businesses and foreign governments who bought Treasury bills, notes and bonds. The rest is owed by the government to itself, and is held as Government Account securities. Most of this is owed to Social Security and other trust funds, which were running surpluses. These securities are a promise to repay these funds when Baby Boomers retire over the next 20 years. The U.S. debt is the largest in the world. How did it get so large? Purchasers of Treasury bills still reasonably expect the U.S. economy to recover enough to pay them back. For foreign investors like China
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This was a result of the economic stimulus package, the 2008 government bailout measures and the roughly $800 billion a year defense/security spending. The deficit is also caused by reduced income from the recession, as well as the EGTRRA and JGTRRA tax cuts and the Alternative Minimum Tax patch.
-The U.S., however, has been the beneficiary of two unusual factors. First, the Social Security Trust Fund took in more revenue through payroll taxes leveraged on Baby Boomers than it needed. Ideally, this money should have been invested to be available when the Boomers retire. In reality, the Fund was "loaned" to the government to finance increased deficit spending. This interest-free loan helped keep Treasury Bond interest rates low, allowing more debt financing. However, it's not really a loan, since it can only be repaid by increased taxes when the Boomers do retire. Second, foreign countries increased their holdings of Treasury Bonds as a safe haven, also keeping interest rates low. These holdings went from 13% in 1988 to 31% in 2011. During the recession, countries like China and Japan increased their holdings of Treasuries to keep their currencies low relative to the dollar. Even though China warns the U.S. to lower its debt, it keeps buying more Treasuries.