Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Civility, Debt and Partisanship

I was raised to believe that debt is bad and should be avoided with few exceptions.  Not surprisingly, every time I hear about the growing Federal Debt, I feel anxious and worried.  Recently, I came across a Wikipedia article titled National debt by U.S. presidential terms. I was bothered by the premise of the article that Republican Presidents increase the debt and Democrat Presidents decrease the debt.
I was pleased to see the discussion section for the article raise the same issues that I would have:
  • What about Obama? 
  • Why blame only the President when only the House of Representatives is authorized by the Constitution to originate spending bills? (Article I Section 7 "All bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives", and by precedence that includes spending). 
  • Why did the chart start in 1950, excluding the deficit spending of Democrat Presidents before this period?

I decided to look at the data myself. Of course I abandoned civility by starting with the premise that Democrats are the spenders and Republicans were fiscally responsible. I ended up with the chart below (the color represents the control of the House of Representatives). 

As I looked at the data, I couldn't find a clear pattern. I then looked at partisan splits in Congress and between Congress and the President. If you look at either chart, you can see that there are times when either party was responsible for the debt.

I then remembered my vow of civility and decided to take a fresh look at the data, not blaming either party. The results both surprised me and didn't. Below is a table of periods of rising debt.

What stands out:
  • What political party is in power is not significant
  • Periods of debt seem to be related to wars and financial crises
  • It takes much fewer years to create debt than to pay it off
  • Our government has had out of control spending for last 30 years.
  • Our government has not wisely used the surplus during recent years of plenty.
  • Republicans and Democrats are both right when they blame each other for our debt problems.

YearYears to Peak%GDPYears to PayoffHistorical EventParty
Pres House Senate
190811.5%1Panic of 1907RRR
1916-1919428%11World War IDDRDR
1930-19411226%Not paid forGreat DepressionRDRDRD
1941-1945583%24World War IIDDD
1981-19961635%???Cold War
Off Gold Standard?
2002-Present9+38%???War in Middle East
Great Recession

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