The soaring national debt has reached a symbolic tipping point: It's now as big as the entire U.S. economy.
The amount of money the federal government owes to its creditors, combined with IOUs to government retirement and other programs, now tops $15.23 trillion.
That's roughly equal to the value of all goods and services the U.S. economy produces in one year: $15.17 trillion as of September, the latest estimate. Private projections show the economy likely grew to about $15.3 trillion by December — a level the debt is likely to surpass this month.
"The 100% mark means that your entire debt is as big as everything you're producing in your country," says Steve Bell of the Bipartisan Policy Center, which has proposed cutting nearly $6 trillion in red ink over 10 years. "Clearly, that can't continue."
Long-term projections suggest the debt will continue to grow faster than the economy, which would have to expand by at least 6% a year to keep pace.
President Obama's 2012 budget shows the debt soaring past $26 trillion a decade from now. Last summer's deficit reduction deal could reduce that to $24 trillion.
Among advanced economies, only Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan and Portugal have debts larger than their economies. Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Italy are at the root of the European debt crisis. The first three needed bailouts from European central banks; Italy's books are monitored by the International Monetary Fund.
Economist Mark Zandi of Moody's Analytics says reaching the 100% mark shows "the grave need to address our long-term fiscal problems."
-excerpts from 1/8/2012 USA Today article by Richard Wolf