WHY IT MATTERS: Debt

The issue:

A sea of red ink is confronting the nation and presidents to come.

The budget deficit — the shortfall created when the government spends more in a given year than it collects in taxes and fees— is on track to top $1 trillion for the fourth straight year. When there’s not enough to pay current bills, the government borrows, mostly by selling interest-bearing Treasury bonds, bills and notes to investors and governments worldwide. It now borrows about 40 cents for every dollar it spends.

The national debt refers to the total amount the federal government owes; the deficit is just a one-year slice.

The U.S. has been borrowing since the 1700s, when it needed money to finance the American Revolution. The outstanding debt has since risen to a shade over $16 trillion. While there’s plenty of finger-pointing by politicians over who’s to blame, deficits historically surge during wars and deep recessions, and the U.S. has had both over the past decade.

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