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As a public service, I would like to present this FAQ from the Treasury Department explaining the national debt. Here it is, complete and unedited:
What is the National Debt?
The term national debt refers to direct liabilities of the United States Government. There are several different concepts of debt that are at various times used to refer to the national debt:
- Public debt is defined as public debt securities issued by the U.S. Treasury. U. S. Treasury securities primarily consist of marketable Treasury securities (i.e., bills, notes and bonds), savings bonds and special securities issued to state and local governments. A portion is debt held by the public and a portion is debt held by government accounts.
- Debt held by the public excludes the portion of the debt that is held by government accounts.
- Gross federal debt is made up of public debt securities and a small amount of securities issued by government agencies.
Debt held by the public is the most meaningful of these concepts and measures the cumulative amount outstanding that the government has borrowed to finance deficits.
As of yesterday, total public debt amounted to $17.555 trillion. Debt held by the public amounted to $12.579 trillion. The term "national debt" can refer to either one. Just make sure it's clear which one you're talking about.