Fact Checking on the Debt

Funny how Internet communication helps certain things take on a life of their own. The past couple of days, for instance, I kept bumping into a chart that was making it’s way around Facebook. This chart purported to disclose the percentage rise in national debt during the tenures of the various presidents from Reagan to Obama.  It is a surprising chart, as it shows the debt went up 189% under President Reagan and ended attributing only a 13% rise to President Obama. I knew the graphic lied, of course. I just couldn’t put my finger on how it’s author was spinning his message. But I did observe commenters-of-the-liberal-persuasion adopting an “I knew it!” stance about this little piece of “information”.  I decided to research the numbers myself and I was, in fact, surprised by the real data. Incidentally, I also found out where the bogus chart came from.  I’ll share that presently.

The Treasury Department has a feature on their website called “The Debt to the Penney” at which you can examine the total public debt numbers they report from fiscal year 1997 onward.  More recent data can be examined at a daily interval.  On that same page is a link for historical data. The plot below is my own, assembled from the data I collected there.

A high-resolution PDF version is available here: Debtplot

I superimposed the inauguration dates for all the presidents from Truman on, though the financial data doesn’t start until 1960. I recognize that theoretically the Congress is in charge of the budget, but at least the presidents give some context while looking at the data.  I find it easier to remember the period based on the occupant of the White House. Now, I promised to explain the source of the suspect chart that started this investigation. Turns out it came from Nancy Pelosi. The chart was apparently presented when Obama had been in office almost exactly one year. So obviously his percentage contribution looked better than predecessors who served eight-year terms. If you have the stomach for it, one can find a more updated version of the graphic in question http://front.moveon.org/who-increased-the-debt/?rc=fb.fan .   Seems they are still trying to get mileage out of it.  I would, in closing, point out a few things I observed from studying my own graph:

  1. I have told you where to get the data. You can check this for yourself. In fact, I recommend it for the mathematically inclined.
  2. The rate of increase during the current presidential term is the steepest on the graph (by far). Given enough time, that slope will result in the highest percentage to date.
  3. The current President / Congress may be accelerating toward the abyss with more vigor, but it started getting out of control way back there.
  4. Budget changes during the tenure of Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich only (temporarily) reduced the rate of increase in debt. The debt was not reduced.
  5. Our government is totally out of control with our credit card.
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One Response to “Fact Checking on the Debt”

  1. durable Says:

    Great post. The unfunded liabilities would be an interesting chart to see in this format.

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