Our $58 trillion love affair with debt, in one crazy chart

Those having a hard time finding growth in the U.S. economy are looking in the wrong places.

Forget about real estate, technology or manufacturing: The real American growth industry is debt. While gross domestic product has lingered in the 2 to 2.5 percent growth range for years, the level of debt as measured through credit market instruments has exploded.

Read MoreRetirees have more of this kind of debt than ever

As the nation entered the 1980s, there was comparatively little debt—just about $4.3 trillion. That was only about 1.5 times the size of gross GDP. Then a funny thing happened.

The gap began to widen during the decade, and then became basically parabolic through the '90s and into the early part of the 21st century.