To understand U.S. federal debt, you first must understand money, specifically the dollar. There is no physical entity called a "dollar." You never have seen, smelled, touched or tasted a dollar. In today's economy, a dollar is nothing more than a number in an accounting balance sheet.
The dollar bill in your wallet is not a dollar; it is a title to a dollar. It merely is evidence you own a dollar, much like a house title is evidence you own a house, or a car title is evidence you own a car or a patent is evidence you own an invention.
But unlike a house or a car, a dollar is no more physical than is, for instance, the number six. Although the number six and a dollar are real, you can't see, smell, touch or taste either of them.
Is it possible to own something that is not physical? Consider a copyright. It demonstrates ownership of a book. But that book is not a physical thing. If I go to a store and I buy your book, who owns the book? I own the physical representation of the book, but your copyright gives you ownership of the non-physical book.
DOLLARS ARE ONLY NUMBERS
Your bank checking account and savings account do not contain dollars. They contain numbers that tell how many dollars you own.
Imagine you are one of the lucky employed, and you have a bank checking account and a bank saving account. Today, your boss gives you your first paycheck: $1,000. What exactly has your boss given you? Money? No, that paycheck is not money.
That paycheck is a set of instructions to your bank, telling your bank to increase the number in your checking account by 1,000. So, for instance, if your checking account number had read 3,476, now that number reads 4,476.
Although for convenience, you might say you now have 4,476 dollars in your checking account, you really have nothing in your checking account but the number, 4,476.
Let's say you give someone your check for 3,000 dollars. Your check instructs your bank to reduce the number in your account by 3,000 and to increase the number in your creditor's checking account by the same amount. Although, for convenience, you say you have transferred dollars from your account to your creditor's account, there really has been no transfer. It's just that your bank has reduced the number in your account and your creditor's bank has increased the number in his account.
DOLLAR TRANSFER IS AN ILLUSION
When you wait at a railroad crossing, you see a red light moving back and forth, back and forth. Except the red light really isn't moving. It's two lights that blink alternately, and give the illusion of motion, an illusion so powerful that though you know it's a illusion, you won't be able to see it as two lights, blinking alternately. Try it.
Similarly, the illusion that dollars move from one account to another is so powerful, we all (including me) talk about dollars moving. But dollars, being non physical, cannot move.
Let's say that the number in your checking account is 4,476, and you write a check for 6,000 (i.e. send instructions to reduce your account, and increase your creditor's account by 6,000) Your creditor's bank will follow your instructions, and increase his checking account number by 6,000. Then his bank will route the check to your bank for "clearing." But, because your checking account number is too small, your instructions won't "clear," and your bank will return the check to your creditor's bank, i.e the check will "bounce." Your creditor's account will be reduced 6,000.
ALL BANK DEPOSITS ARE BANK DEBTS
When you deposit dollars in your bank accounts, you actually lend to your bank. Those dollars are loans, not gifts. Your bank owes you those dollars, and if you want them, your bank is obligated to give them back to you. If you tell your bank you want the dollars in your savings account transferred to your checking account, will this be a problem for your bank? No, your bank simply will debit your savings account and credit your checking account.