Visualizing Your Country’s Debt Per Capita

Visualizing Your Country’s Debt Per Capita

National debt levels can be hard to understand, not to mention boring. For example, Puerto Rico is making headlines because it is $74 billion in debt, but the United States is about to reach $20 trillion, and that doesn’t seem like a big deal. How can this make sense, and who cares about all this stuff anyway? We created a new graph to break it down in layman’s terms.

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We used new numbers from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) about per capita national debt. It’s a straightforward metric. For instance, if Americans wanted to completely eliminate their national debt, they would each owe $61,539. We created a series of donut circles: the larger the circle, the higher the per capita debt ratio. We then color-coded each one to correspond with a sliding scale of severity. Dark red means the country is in serious trouble with over $75K in per capita debt, while blue countries on the outside have less than $10K of debt per capita.

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Comparing the debt loads of different countries on a per capita basis makes the most sense for a few different reasons. It’s like comparing apples to apples. That’s why the United States can run a $63 billion deficit for the month of October—which barely makes the news on Reuters—but missing $900 million in debt payments from Venezuela causes that country’s entire economy to tailspin. This makes the comparisons between countries fair.

Japan is at the center of our graph because that country has the highest per capita debt anywhere in the world at $90,345. There isn’t a country on earth where average people make nearly that much money on an annual basis. Ireland takes second place at $62,687 followed by the United States in third with $61,539. That’s almost twice as much as the average American taxpayer who files as a single adult makes in an entire year.

Take a look at one country on the far outside of our graph, China. The Chinese government has managed to create so much economic growth (which may finally be slowing down) while only amassing $7,119 in per capita public debt. Granted, China is the most populated country on the planet. That’s still an amazing accomplishment given how much modernization the country has undergone.

Take a look at a list of the top ten countries with the highest per capita debt in the world. Keep in mind that the average for all countries in the OECD is $50,245. And notice how many countries are in Western Europe.

  1. Japan – $90,345
  2. Ireland – $62,687
  3. United States – $61,539
  4. Italy – $59,372
  5. Belgium – $59,680
  6. Austria – $49,975
  7. France – $51,768
  8. Greece – $49,630
  9. United Kingdom – $52,816
  10. Portugal – $44,819

Per capita numbers are always a great way to compare different economies from around the world. It doesn’t matter who you are—if every citizen in a country suddenly became liable for paying an equal share of the national debt, there’d by serious problems. And that’s especially true when an individual’s portion of the national debt amounted to more than an entire year’s salary.

Data: Table 1.1

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  1. No No NO. No apples to apples comparison. Jeff Bezos has far more liabilities than have I, but he also has a lot more assets. No apple juice here. Per capita means nothing without comparing it to the assets and especially the INCOME that each “head” generates. Indonesian per capita income rather lower than American.

    Then there’s the problem with defining general government gross debt. For European countries this is the consolidated public sector debt, but for the US it ignores bonds, etc., issued by the state and local governments (Tr$3), as well as contingent liabilities for GSE’s (Freddie Fannie Sally Ginny FHL Tr$8). No apple juice here either.

    Another issue: The USA Federal debt (K$62.9 per capita) is circa 600% of tax revenue, compared to under 300% for European countries, and much higher than Greece’s. In the end, government debt is paid from government revenues, not from GDP (the favorite ratio always listed by the press).

    But the biggest problem is that for the economy, it is not government debt but private debt that spells trouble. Spain had very low public debt at the beginning of the GFC in 2008, but the economy suffered due to the outsize housing mortgage bubble. Nothing here indicated about private debt levels.

    The total government debt is not an issue, generally being held by a country’s own citizens (and insurance and pension funds). Per capita, assets and liabilities match (approximately), and there is never a problem owing yourself money. The problem is that the distribution of assets and liabilities is very uneven, something for which the balance sheet total gives absolutely no indication. And which is a very real but totally different problem.

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