How much money is in the federal bank account? These two graphs, updated daily, tell the story.

Maps, charts, graphs, and interesting numbers.
Aug. 8 2011 12:03 PM

We're Not Broke! (Yet)

Two simple graphs that show how borrowing is keeping the treasury afloat.

Here's one way to express how catastrophically screwed the U.S. government's finances are: If the entire U.S budget were cut to zero, effective immediately—the military, all entitlements, the electricity bill for the Capitol—there still wouldn't be enough money to cover the payments on old debt that come due every day. In fact, by Slate's calculations, the payments would have dried us up in under a month. So for decades the strategy has been to borrow new money to pay down old debt—plus a little extra to kick to the Treasury's coffers, since we habitually spend more than we take in. That continued to work this year until May 16, when we maxed out our congressional credit card. Since then, the Treasury has been living on savings and whatever revenue comes in. The first graph here very simply shows the balance in the Treasury's bank account, which is published every weekday. The light-colored bars at the end represent the Bipartisan Policy Center's projections for how long we can make it before the money all dries up. That date is Aug. 3.

Update, Aug. 8, 2011: The treasury has updated its statements to reflect the new borrowing limit. The national debt is currently at $14.5 trillion. This graph will continue to update, but a default is no longer imminent.

Below it is a graph of the total national debt. Note that the scale begins at $13.5 trillion, not zero.

As you can see, as the debt approaches the point of no return, the U.S. coffers take a major hit. But you will also see some spikes in revenue after borrowing is maxed out. This can be attributed to many things—an influx of tax revenue, profits from the Federal Reserve's holdings, and the general movement of funds and debt between accounts. We are continuing to borrow money as well, but only in equal amounts to the debt we pay off, so as to remain under the debt ceiling.

Are there other ways that you'd like to see the budget visualized? Email us your ideas.

Previous updates:

Update, Aug. 1, 2011: The latest treasury statement, for last Thursday, reports $53.6 billion in the government's bank account. This means Bill Gates, worth $56 billion, now has more money than the United States government.

Update, July 28, 5:18 p.m.: Yesterday, Reuters' Felix Salmon took issue with this article's statement that "If the entire U.S budget were cut to zero, effective immediately—the military, all entitlements, the electricity bill for the Capitol—there still wouldn't be enough money to cover the payments on old debt that come due every day." Salmon interprets this to refer to interest payments on the national debt, and in this respect he's correct. As he states, "The  fact  is that Treasury can easily cover interest payments from tax revenues alone. We raise about $180 billion a month in taxes; interest payments come to about $30 billion a month."

I was not, however, referring to interest payments, but rather loan payments themselves that have come due—money we borrowed previously that is now due back to whomever loaned it to us. These payments are almost always "rolled over" by immediately borrowing more money to pay off the old debt. My point is that, if we wanted to actually reduce the national debt by paying it off with government revenue instead of with new loans, we'd be unable to keep up with payments even if every penny that the government brings in was devoted to lowering debt.

These two graphs demonstrate the difference. The first is Salmon's interpretation, the second is mine.

Update, July 27, 8:32 a.m.: The Treasury made a net gain of $4 billion on July 25, slightly ahead of projections. While some analyses suggest that the government can pay its bills for a few days longer than expected, Aug. 3 still appears to be the day money will run out.

Update, July 26, 10:12 a.m.: The most recent Treasury statement, for July 22, reports a balance of $84.4 billion, slightly below projections. Funds are still on track to run dry on Wednesday, Aug. 3.

Chris Wilson is a Slate contributor.



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