Most Americans are rightly worried about the financial condition of the U.S. government as deficits soar to amounts that are almost inconceivable. The recession of the last few years has only aggravated the situation, forcing the federal government to resort to a massive stimulus program to keep the situation from getting even worse.
The Obama budget for fiscal 2011 and the estimates of future budget deficits for the rest of the decade seem to leave no hope for the government as it descends into a debt spiral. But as bad as things might seem, there are some facts about the situation that are usually not discussed in the mainstream media. Here we examine six important facts about the U.S. budget deficit that you may not be aware of.

1. We've Had Bigger Deficits
The U.S. federal deficit as a percent of gross domestic product reached 9.92% in 2009. While this is an alarming deficit, it is nothing compared to the highest in our history. During World War II, the government ran deficits as a percent of gross domestic product in the 20% range, reaching a high of 28.05% in 1943. It was also higher during World War I, when it reached 16.86% of gross domestic product in 1919. This isn't to say that it's OK to have deficits this large, but only that the U.S. has come through periods of worse deficits and survived. (For background reading, see Breaking Down The U.S. Budget Deficit.)

2. China Isn't So Scary
Many people believe that the U.S. is overly dependent on the Chinese government to finance its debt. The obvious danger here is if China ever walked away from the table, the U.S. government would be left holding the bag, and with disastrous consequences for the economy. While it is true that the Chinese government is the largest foreign owner of U.S Treasuries, with $789.6 billion as of November 2009, it has only been a net buyer of $76 billion in the previous 12 months. This, in effect, means that we have financed the largest dollar amount deficit in our history with barely any assistance from the Chinese government.

3. Assets Count Too
Another thing to consider is that when considering the U.S. and its financial situation as a whole, you can't just focus only on the liability side of the balance sheet. The U.S. also has considerable assets that might offset those liabilities. (Get to know how a balance sheet works by checking out our Balance Sheet Video.)

4. Tax Receivables
The federal government has a huge tax receivable on its balance sheet in the form of untaxed IRA and 401(k) accounts held by Americans. At the end of 2007, IRAs held $4.75 trillion in assets, and private sector defined-benefit and defined-contribution 401(k) plans held a total of $5.82 trillion. This amount has obviously declined over the last two years along with the market, but is still a considerable sum. When this money is slowly withdrawn, it will be taxed.

5. Americans are Undertaxed
Here's another bombshell for you: the top marginal rate peaked at 94% in 1944, and then was cut to 71% in 1964, and 50% in 1980. The top marginal rate reached a modern-day low of 28% in 1988. This is not an effective tax rate, but the rate on income over a certain amount. There is considerable debate by economists on whether higher rates produce more or less income; we'll avoid wading into that debate here. The point is that there is some room here for rates to go up, and an increase is not an outrageous notion: many other developed countries pay much higher personal tax rates than Americans are subject to.

6. Land Ho!
Another major asset to consider is the huge land holdings of the United States government, which according to the General Services Administration (GSA), total 650 million acres. While much of this land may not be suitable for habitation, some of it has immense value.

For example, the Green River Basin in the Western United States is 70% owned by the federal government, and this region is estimated to hold as much as 1.8 trillion barrels of oil shale. If we assume that 40% is recoverable, that's 720 billion barrels of oil locked up in rock on government-owned land.

If the peak oil theorists are correct and the price of oil moves much higher per barrel, this stash of oil will one day have to be developed, and the government will reap the royalties from this development. Since this rock is so expensive to develop, it will literally be the last fossil fuel on earth to be exploited. This means that one day, the U.S. will be the last game in town, long after Saudi Arabia has depleted its resources.

The Bottom Line
It has been tough to be an American lately as the economy works its way through a brutal recession, with much of the world seemingly cheering on the country's economic demise. But don't despair - fundamentally, things may not be as bad as they look, and even if they are, the country has survived through much worse!

Related Articles
  1. Budgeting

    Your Worst Financial Mistakes And Why You Made Them

    No one intends to make a financial mistake, but an unexpected disaster or poor planning could leave you in financial distress.
  2. Investing

    Is it Time to “Buy” Inflation?

    Based on recent data from the Treasury-Inflation Protected Securities (TIPS) market, it would seem that most investors aren’t worried about inflation.
  3. Investing

    Which Economy Is Larger - The United States or China?

    China's economy may be larger than the U.S. economy, but it all depends on which exchange rate method you use to make the GDP comparisons.
  4. Investing

    What a U.S. - Asia Trade Deal Means For Business

    The U.S. and 11 other countries, comprising 40% of the world’s total economic output, have finally reached agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
  5. Savings

    10 Ways To Budget When You’re Broke

    Budgets are some of the best financial tools around – when planned properly and followed faithfully.
  6. Savings

    7 Ways to Trim Fat from Your Spending

    Check out these seven ways to cut the fat from your spending.
  7. Savings

    7 Millionaire Myths

    Here are seven millionaire myths and realities that reveal they don’t quite have it all.
  8. Investing

    How Worried Should We Be About China?

    An economic slowdown, a freezing up in trade and plunging markets and currencies are casting a shadow across Asia—and the globe. How worried should we be?
  9. Budgeting

    How To Save Money When Moving

    Moving doesn't have to be as expensive as you think. Here are some great ways to save money on moving costs.
  10. Budgeting

    The Hard Way We Pay For Convenience

    Convenience is a luxury. However, any cost-conscious individual should be aware of these ridiculous ways we pay for convenience and how to avoid them.
  1. Is Colombia an emerging market economy?

    Colombia meets the criteria of an emerging market economy. The South American country has a much lower gross domestic product, ... Read Full Answer >>
  2. Is Mexico an emerging market economy?

    Mexico meets all the criteria of an emerging market economy. The country's gross domestic product, or GDP, per capita beats ... Read Full Answer >>
  3. Is Argentina a developed country?

    Argentina is not a developed country. It has one of the strongest economies in South America or Central America and ranks ... Read Full Answer >>
  4. Is Brazil a developed country?

    Brazil is not a developed country. Though it has the largest economy in South America or Central America, Brazil is still ... Read Full Answer >>
  5. Are Social Security payments included in the US GDP calculation?

    Social Security payments are not included in the U.S. definition of the gross domestic product (GDP). Transfer Payments For ... Read Full Answer >>
  6. Where are the Social Security administration headquarters?

    The U.S. Social Security Administration, or SSA, is headquartered in Woodlawn, Maryland, a suburb just outside of Baltimore. ... Read Full Answer >>

You May Also Like

Trading Center
You are using adblocking software

Want access to all of Investopedia? Add us to your “whitelist”
so you'll never miss a feature!