How Much Debt Does Your Country Have Per Person? An Exercise in Understanding Large Numbers

Debt often enables governments to run smoothly. But sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.

The US recently passed $20 trillion in debt for the first time.  To put that in perspective, I am going to reference an article I wrote in 2011 … when the debt was approaching $15 trillion. 

Here is what the $15 trillion U.S. debt looked like when it is piled up in stacks of $100 bills.

To put it in context, do you see the tiny tractor trailer?  Squint, and you can see the barely visible human in front of it. 

110725 Fifteen Trillion Dollars


The United States has a net wealth of approximately $300 trillion.  Nonetheless, the statistics are sobering. 

Take a look at the list of country debt as a percentage of GDP.   Apparently, Japan has embraced its inner borrower. 

1092017 DebtOECD via World Economic Forum 

According to the World Economic Forum, if the Japanese wanted to pay off their national debt, each individual would owe approximately $90,345. For comparison, US citizens would owe $61,539 a person. 

It's also worth noting that lower debt levels don't translate to safety on a global scale. Yugoslavia had very low government debt until its breakup. 

If you want to see an updated, interactive version of the U.S. Debt Clock, just click here.  It is worth spending a little time to watch the pace the numbers turn.

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