Rising national debt may be the next economic crisis

The overall debt is now slightly over 80% of the annual output of the entire U.S. economy, as measured by the gross domestic product.

By historical standards, it's not proportionately as high as during World War II, when it briefly rose to 120% of GDP. But it's still a huge liability.

Also, the United States is not the only nation struggling under a huge national debt. Among major countries, Japan, Italy, India, France, Germany and Canada have comparable debts as percentages of their GDPs.

Where does the government borrow all this money from?

The debt is largely financed by the sale of Treasury bonds and bills. Even today, amid global economic turmoil, those still are seen as one of the world's safest investments.

That's one of the rare upsides of U.S. government borrowing.

Treasury securities are suitable for individual investors and popular with other countries, especially China, Japan and the Persian Gulf oil exporters, the three top foreign holders of U.S. debt.

But as the U.S. spends trillions to stabilize the recession-wracked economy, helping to force down the value of the dollar, the securities become less attractive as investments. Some major foreign lenders are already paring back on their purchases of U.S. bonds and other securities.

And if major holders of U.S. debt were to flee, it would send shock waves through the global economy — and sharply force up U.S. interest rates.

As time goes by, demographics suggest things will get worse before they get better, even after the recession ends, as more baby boomers retire and begin collecting Social Security and Medicare benefits.

While the president remains personally popular, polls show there is rising public concern over his handling of the economy and the government's mushrooming debt — and what it might mean for future generations.

If things can't be turned around, including establishing a more efficient health care system, "We are on an utterly unsustainable fiscal course," said the White House budget director, Peter Orszag.

Some budget-restraint activists claim even the debt understates the nation's true liabilities.

The Peter G. Peterson Foundation, established by a former commerce secretary and investment banker, argues that the $11.4 trillion debt figures does not take into account roughly $45 trillion in unlisted liabilities and unfunded retirement and health care commitments.

That would put the nation's full obligations at $56 trillion, or roughly $184,000 per American, according to this calculation.

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