The article depicts the U.S. federal debt ceiling in three different graphs of the time period 1943 through 2020:
- as nominal dollars
- as constant (or, inflation-adjusted) dollars
- as a percentage of GDP
All show the same pattern of steady increase of the debt ceiling beginning circa 1980.
The basic concept of the debt ceiling is that some sort of limit on federal debt should exist. Economists argue over what that limitation should be, but most agree with the intuition that government debt should conform to some type of constraint.
Generically, there are two basic consequences of debt. The first is that debt must be repaid. The second is that debt creates money, adding to the total volume of money and potentially reducing the value of its fractions. These two consequences cannot be reconciled because you cannot, in fact, repay a debt with dollars that have lost value.
These consequences cannot be reconciled, but they are temporal. This means they they are time limited. Even if, say, the quantity of money triples, causing prices to triple across the board, buyers and sellers will eventually get used to the new pricing level. Alternatively, small debts have small effects, possibly even unnoticeable ones.
Also, debt is not the only thing that can change the quantity of money; moreover, the quantity of goods can change on its own, as well.
What is important is that debt is both willfully created and inherently disruptive. To the extent one wishes the monetary system to remain predictable and reliable, debt makes it less so. This is why there is a general intuition that such a thing as too much debt can exist whereas, at the same time, it is almost impossible to define what “too much debt” means.
In practice, you can always be on the side of Truth and Reason by advocating for less debt in the world, especially big government debt. Then, at least, you’ll be advocating for less human suffering.