It's been a year since I posted this snapshot of how various countries rank on the debt scale, according to the CIA World Factbook, so it's time for a refresh.
This is usually a pleasant surprise to anyone who's been hearing about the USA's "crushing" debt burden from people who don't place it into proper context. And it's usually an unpleasant surprise to those who like to use fear of debt as a political lever, and therefore intentionally refrain from placing into context.
Although the USA's "total" national debt is 66.3% GDP (see note 1 on the graphic; it's based on the "$9 trillion debt" that always appears in the headlines), the more important number is the publicly held debt level of 37.5% GDP (see note 2), for reasons I've explained many times at this blog.
After WW-2, publicly held debt was 121% GDP; although the debt level has increased many times over since then, the debt ratio has dropped to 37.5% because of sixty years of economic growth.
By the way, I haven't found anyone yet who can justify an estimate as to how high that ratio could go before the markets would start giving unmistakable negative signals, and that includes me. At least we know that our current debt level is perceived favorably, because interest rates, inflation rates, and exchange rates are remaining steady in safe territory. I've always wondered if a ratio of 150% or more might be a tipping point (still lower than Japan's)—but am not sure I want to find out empirically. I do think 40%-80% would be a good target for objective, long-term fiscal policy—even though I have no argument as to why 80% should be a ceiling, and little hope of finding objectivity in the fiscal policy debate, especially in an election year.
In any case, the USA appears to be in very safe territory—especially considering that the outstanding public debt is denominated in US dollars.
The data came from the CIA World Factbook's Public Debt Ranking page.
If you have questions about any of the numbers, especially Canada's number (which is always controversial for some reason), please take it up with the CIA Factbook folks. Last year I tried several times, with no success; maybe you'll have better luck than I did.