Testifying in the U.S Senate yesterday, Congressional Budget Office Director Keith Hall warned that the publicly held debt of the U.S. government, when measured as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product, is headed toward a level the United States has seen only once in its history—at the end of World War II.
To simply contain the debt at the high historical level where it currently sits—74 percent of GDP–would require either significant increases in federal tax revenue or decreases in non-interest federal spending (or a combination of the two). Historically, U.S. government debt held by the public, measured as a percentage of GDP, hit its peak in 1945 and 1946, when it was 104 percent and 106 percent of GDP respectively.
In 2015, the CBO estimates that the U.S. government debt held by the public will be 74 percent of GDP. That is higher than the 69-percent-of-GDP debt the U.S. government had in 1943—the second year after Pearl Harbor.
The difference between then and now, of course, is that back then the U.S. had fought and won a two-front war against National Socialist Germany and the Empire of Japan. Today, we are fighting ourselves:
While the run up in debt held by the public as a percentage of GDP in the 1940s financed a global war against Nazi Germany and Japan that ended with an allied victory, the current run toward unprecedented debt is based on projected increases in mandatory federal spending for entitlement programs. These include Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and Obamacare subsidies. “Mainly because of the aging of the population and rising health care costs, the extended baseline projections show revenues that fall well short of spending over the long term, producing a substantial imbalance in the federal budget,” Hall said in his written testimony.
That’s putting it mildly.