Commentary Magazine


Topic: national debt

Senator Dirksen, Call Your Office

Everett Dirksen, the late Republican senator from Illinois, is famous for saying (on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” of all places) about government spending, “a billion here, a billion there and the first thing you know, you’re talking about real money.”

The senator died in 1969, when the national debt stood at $352.7 billion ($2.214 trillion in 2012 dollars, as measured by the CPI), and equal to 39 percent of 1969 GDP. Today, 43 mostly prosperous years later (many of them exceedingly so), the national debt is over $16 trillion–eight times as great in constant dollars–and two and half times as great in terms of GDP.

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Everett Dirksen, the late Republican senator from Illinois, is famous for saying (on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” of all places) about government spending, “a billion here, a billion there and the first thing you know, you’re talking about real money.”

The senator died in 1969, when the national debt stood at $352.7 billion ($2.214 trillion in 2012 dollars, as measured by the CPI), and equal to 39 percent of 1969 GDP. Today, 43 mostly prosperous years later (many of them exceedingly so), the national debt is over $16 trillion–eight times as great in constant dollars–and two and half times as great in terms of GDP.

You’d think it might be an issue in the present campaign. But President Obama is not concerned. Indeed, he is so unconcerned that he can’t even remember what the size of the debt is these days. On “The Late Show with David Letterman” (these late-night talk shows, it seems, have become the agora of modern American politics), Letterman asked if it was now about $10 trillion. That, in fact, was the figure when Obama became president. Today, three and a half years later, it has grown by 60 percent, but Obama can’t remember exactly what it is. My friends at Power Line have the tape.

If Obama is re-elected he will have to be concerned at some point, such as when, to paraphrase Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, the government holds a bond auction and nobody shows up.

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Obama’s Debt: More Red Ink Than Bush

The Obama administration has encountered another pothole on the road to re-election.  CBS is reporting that the national debt taken on in the three years and two months of the Obama administration now exceeds the debt added during the Bush administration’s entire eight years in office: $4.899 trillion for Bush, $4.939 for Obama.

In other words, Bush ran up the tab at the rate of $51 billion a month, while Obama is running it up at the rate of $137 billion a month, 2.6 times as fast.  The debt now stands at $15.566 trillion, over 100 percent of GDP for the first time since the immediate aftermath of World War II. Obama’s own budget projections show no end in sight: $16.3 trillion by the end of 2012, $17.5 in 2013, $20 trillion by the end of Obama’s second term if, heaven forefend, he wins one. That would mean an increase of 87 percent in the total debt over Obama’s two terms.

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The Obama administration has encountered another pothole on the road to re-election.  CBS is reporting that the national debt taken on in the three years and two months of the Obama administration now exceeds the debt added during the Bush administration’s entire eight years in office: $4.899 trillion for Bush, $4.939 for Obama.

In other words, Bush ran up the tab at the rate of $51 billion a month, while Obama is running it up at the rate of $137 billion a month, 2.6 times as fast.  The debt now stands at $15.566 trillion, over 100 percent of GDP for the first time since the immediate aftermath of World War II. Obama’s own budget projections show no end in sight: $16.3 trillion by the end of 2012, $17.5 in 2013, $20 trillion by the end of Obama’s second term if, heaven forefend, he wins one. That would mean an increase of 87 percent in the total debt over Obama’s two terms.

Obama, to be sure, faced a tough economic situation when he was inaugurated in January 2009. The economy was shrinking rapidly, the stock market was down by nearly fifty percent, and unemployment was headed towards 10.2 percent. Deficit spending is inescapable in those circumstances and, in fact, desirable. And Obama has rarely missed a chance to let us know that he faced the worst economy since the Great Depression, although as Peter Wehner has pointed out, that is, to say the least, an arguable proposition.

But not even Obama argues that he faced a worse situation than Franklin Roosevelt faced in March 1933. The GDP had fallen by half, unemployment was above 25 percent, and the stock market was down not by 50 percent but by 90 percent. Farms were being foreclosed at the rate of 20,000 a month. Banks were entirely closed in 38 states and in only very limited operation in the other ten. Hoovervilles dotted the landscape of American cities.

So how did FDR do in his first three years? The debt increased in those years by 73 percent, but from a very low base (only 33.6 percent of GDP). While Obama’s debt/GDP ratio has increased 33 percentage points, FDR’s increased only 7 percentage points in the same time frame. In his first eight years, as the Great Depression lingered on and on, FDR presided over an increase in the debt of 124 percent and saw the debt rise as a percentage of GDP from 33.6 percent to 50.85 percent. As a percentage of GDP, in other words, Obama has increased the national debt more in three years of moderate economic troubles than FDR did in eight years of economic catastrophe.

Not much of a record to run on, is it?

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