The U.S. federal government last ran a budget surplus in the fiscal year 2001. (Fiscal years begin in October of the previous calendar year. Don’t ask.) Since then, the government has borrowed roughly $20 trillion. That’s a large number, even for an economy as big as America’s: Federal debt held by the public has roughly tripled as a percentage of gross domestic product, from 32 percent to 94 percent.
I argued in my last column that, despite all this borrowing, we are not in any kind of debt crisis. Historically, in fact, U.S. debt isn’t all that unusual. For example, over the past three centuries Britain emerged from each major war with debt as a percentage of G.D.P. well above the current U.S. level, and took many decades to bring that debt ratio back down: