18 Spooky Facts You Didn’t Know About the National Debt

Shhh … Don’t tell anybody, but Fort Knox currently holds enough gold to only cover 0.06% of the $16 trillion National Debt.

With October here and Halloween right around the corner, there are a lot of folks out there looking for ways to scare the pants off unwitting friends and family members.

One way to do that without having to dress up like a ghost or goblin is by sharing this little piece of news: Last month, the US National Debt surpassed the $16 trillion mark. I know.

And if that’s not terrifying enough, here’s a witches’ brew of other chilling facts you didn’t know about the National Debt:

  1. Although the official US national debt figure is $16 trillion, it would be at least $45 trillion higher if it included unfunded future obligations for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — but it doesn’t.
  2. In late December 2011, the national debt to GDP ratio — an indicator of fiscal health — ominously surpassed the 100% mark.
  3. It could be worse: US national debt reached 130% of GDP immediately following World War II. Today, America is currently the world’s 13th worst debtor nation. Believe it or not, two of the eight largest economies in the world currently fare even worse than the US; Japan (212%) and Italy (120%) are ranked second and eighth, respectively.
  4. Then again, it could be better too: The next time you’re playing trivial pursuit, it may come in handy to remember that the two countries with the lowest debt as a percentage of GDP are Liberia (3.3%) and Oman (4.1%).
  5. With debt equivalent to 220% of its GDP, Zimbabwe is currently the world’s worst debtor nation. Not coincidentally, an epic case of hyperinflation has all but destroyed their economy.
  6. It took the US government 191 years — from 1791 until 1982 — to run up its first trillion dollars in debt. It only took four years after that for Congress to add another trillion dollars to the total.
  7. Sixteen-trillion dollars is a hair-raising amount of money. In fact, it’s equivalent to roughly $51,300 for every man, woman, and child currently living in the United States.
  8. As a point of reference, if 16-trillion $1 bills were stacked  on top  of each other, they would stretch all the  way to the moon.  And back.  And then more than halfway to the moon again.
  9. If you brought one trillion crisp one-dollar bills to the bank and handed the teller a dollar every second, it would take 32,000 years to completely transfer the money. And you thought pennies were a pain.
  10. Don’t blame inflation: Between 1946 and 1982, and after taking inflation into account, the national debt remained virtually unchanged. Since then — with the notable exceptions of 2000 and 2001 — the national debt has crept upward at an exponential pace.
  11. Our founding fathers were no better at managing debt than we are now. In 1791, the national debt was a mere $75 million. That may seem miniscule, but at the time it represented a debt-to-GDP ratio of 40%.
  12. Thanks to Andrew Jackson, the national debt was completely paid off on January 1, 1835.  That’s right; the national debt was eliminated and the surplus revenues that year were distributed to the states. To this day it remains the only time in history a major country has been debt free.
  13. The idea of balancing government budgets is not a new one. In 55 B.C., Cicero told his fellow citizens that, “The budget should be balanced, the Treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, and assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome become bankrupt.” Nobody listened.
  14. The US government currently borrows about $168 million every hour. That’s more than it paid to buy Alaska in 1867, after adjusting for inflation.
  15. He’s not that rich: If Bill Gates were to donate his entire $61 billion net worth to help slow down the increase in our national debt, it would only cover 16 days worth of expenses.
  16. China and Japan are the two biggest holders of our foreign debt. Although this conceivably exposes the United States to economic blackmail, such a move would result in mass financial suicide, as it would force a run on the dollar and severely erode its value.
  17. What if the Treasury paid our creditors with all the gold in Fort Knox? It’s a nice thought, but doing so would have the same impact as spitting into the ocean. Unfortunately, the value of all US Treasury-owned gold — including reserves held at locations other than Fort Knox — is less than $460-billion, assuming a price of $1750 per ounce.
  18. I know what you’re thinking: Will they take a personal check?  Cute.  Although our creditors won’t  apply your check to our national debt, the US government  most certainly will. Just make it payable to the Bureau of the Public Debt, and in the memo section, note that it’s a “Gift to reduce the debt held by the public.” Then mail your check to:

Attn Dept G
Bureau of the Public Debt
P. O. Box 2188
Parkersburg, WV 26106-2188

Now, is it just me, or does the mere thought of anyone even considering such a supernatural gesture seem downright, well … spooky?

(This is an updated version of an article originally posted on June 9, 2009)

Photo Credit: Cliff


  1. 3

    Cemlyn Jones says

    Hi Len. You’d think with all the clever people who work in our financial institutions around the world that they would be able to control something as simple as a balance sheet. So why are all the countries in raging debt?? Well part of that is our own greed. Unlike our forefathers who were happy to save up for what they wanted, we want everything now. But that is not the real reason. Banks and other financial institutions make more money from debt than from anything else. They rake in more money the deeper the debt. Banks will eventually rule everything if they do not already.

    • 4

      Len Penzo says

      Yep. That succinctly sums it all up, Cemlyn. That greed you speak of may not only eventually kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, it also continues to slowly chip away at the fabric of our society, and our faith in the system.

  2. 9


    Very interesting read, Len..

    The scariest part of all of this is that it is getting so much worse every year. The deeper we dig, the higher a percentage of future budgets will have to be dedicated to interest on the debt, leaving less to pay for obligations like SS & Medicare (which will have their costs increasing regardless)..

    Simple math says that we are on our way to major trouble in the not so distant future.

  3. 10


    Hey Len! Thanks for putting me into the Halloween spirit.

    Just a correction from the trivia department: I read that Fort Knox has about 147 million ounces of gold these days. At $1760/ounce, that’s about $260 billion rather than $11 billion.

    Sure, that would still only pay our way for a few months, but it would be pretty fun to climb around on those mountains of gold bars and take some ‘Hey Look at Me’ pictures.

    • 11

      Len Penzo says

      You are correct, MMM. I originally cited the government’s official book value of their entire reserves at all their repositories (per the US Treasury link I provided in the article), which I assume to be the government’s cost to acquire the gold. They use a book value of $42.22 per troy ounce, which is clearly far off the today’s (10/9/12) closing price of $1765 per ounce!

      So I’ve now included the current value of all US gold reserves. That includes reserves those held outside of Fort Knox, such as at places like the Denver Mint and West Point.

      Total US reserves are 261.499 million troy ounces. Over half of those, approximately 147 million ounces, reside at Fort Knox.

      Or so they say. 😉

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