A Brief History of the National Debt

From Mole Hills to Mountains

By Tyler Grimm


with sidebars by Burton Folsom

The U.S. Treasury Department updates our national debt on a daily basis. The current debt—to the penny—is $13,203,473,753,967.10 (that's $13 trillion). With our country on the hook for such an incomprehensible sum, it's worth asking: How the heck did we get here?

WORDS OF WISDOM:

Andrew Jackson once said, when speaking of the large budget surplus, "It appears to me that the most safe, just, and federal disposition which could be made of the surplus revenue, would be its apportionment among the several states according to their ratio of representation."

Is our current level of debt a result of under-taxing? Over-spending?

Was it the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and security buildup after 9/11? The Bush tax cuts? The bailouts? Obama's "stimulus"?

Before we get to that, let's start with a quick look at the history of U.S. debt. (All figures below refer to debt per person, adjusted for inflation to be comparable to the worth of a dollar today.)

For the Founding Fathers, the nation's debt obligations were a grave matter. In George Washington's farewell address, he was thankful the United States secured financing for the Revolutionary War but warned against excessive debt. He admonished the country's liabilities should be paid down quickly. "Cherish public credit," Washington implored, "... avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertions in time of peace to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the bur[d]en which we ourselves ought to bear."

For the first 50 years of our nation's existence, the federal debt was reasonably low—on average, less than $130 per person. In fact, Andrew Jackson paid off the national debt (which he called a "national curse") entirely in 1835— the only time this has occurred in our country's history. The national debt remained low, averaging less than $35 per person, until the Civil War.

FOUNDING FACTS:

The Founders faced great financial problems in establishing the American


nation. The war for independence lasted more than six years and was expensive to


wage. Because the patriots had almost no cash, General George Washington (and others) signed notes to borrow food, clothes, ammunition, and weapons. By


the time Washington was elected president, those debts totaled $40 million—and to that we had to add another $11 million we had borrowed from the French, and about $24 million in debts the states had


accumulated in defeating the British. Thus President Washington, with a nation of


about 4 million people, faced a large war debt of about $75 million when he became


president. And that doesn’t count startup costs for the new United States.

That War – the deadliest in our nation's history – and the Reconstruction era that followed were costly but not extremely burdensome; debt peaked at around $1,100 per person and, for the most part, declined until World War I, when debt made its way up to around $3,000 per person. Not great, but still manageable. Then came the New Deal and World War II.

Franklin Roosevelt's vast expansion of the federal government under the New Deal drove up the debt to $4,000 per person (the amount would have been much higher but was offset with punitive tax increases).

Nevertheless, things weren't really grim until World War II, which plunged our country deep into the red. In per person terms, debt rose to $22,000 – a staggering 526 percent increase over 10 years prior. Total debt was well over 100 percent the size of the economy.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and other deficit-spending champions often claim, "we did it during World War II so we can do it now." But you should be aware of two very important distinctions between national debt during World War II and now.

First, we did not have a choice:

The nation was fighting an existential war against fascist foes that sought world domination. Second, the government was able to use the fervor of patriotism to sell War Bonds (think of the iconic Rosie the Riveter posters). While they helped finance the war effort, the bonds were actually an awful investment that would not pass muster today.

As Harvard historian Niall Ferguson has explained, "War bonds were among the worst investments of the 20th century, and it was just unfortunate that nobody had explained to my grandmother what her real interest rate was. If they had, she might have realized that she was earning negative real returns on her patriotic investment."

Besides, it's not as if there's an appetite for Cash for Clunkers bonds.

In the 1950s, the Korean War took a small toll on our nation's finances, but the next debt milestone worth mentioning is the "Great Society." Launched in 1965, this was President Lyndon Johnson's attempt to build upon the Big Government foundation laid by the New Deal. The effort included vastly expanding America's safety net with a series of new social welfare initiatives: Medicare, Medicaid, and Head Start were just a few of the programs created.

Initially, these did not have a huge impact on the country's debt burden. In fact, real debt mostly declined for the decade after 1965 (which Ted Kennedy called "the breakout year" for modern liberalism). However, the limited debt impact was an illusion based on artificially rosy economic assumptions. According to economist Herbert Stein, the Great Society "reflected a misconception of the long-run budget situation, if not a total neglect of the long run." These programs have since become a tumor in U.S. fiscal policy – by 2014, Medicare and Medicaid will be larger components of the budget than defense spending.

WORDS OF WISDOM:

Henry Morgenthau, FDR’s Secretary of Treasury, once said “[we] have tried spending money. We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work. I say after eight years of this Administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started... And an enormous debt to boot!”

The Vietnam War, while perceived to be very costly, was not that expensive in historical terms. At roughly $700 billion in today's dollars, it cost less in total than the price of Social Security this year alone. It was the Cold War military buildup that cost us big.

While Ronald Reagan was the most fiscally conservative president in modern history, he did not shy away from a serious ramp up in defense spending. He wanted to keep government small, but Reagan knew that stopping the spread of Communism was paramount. As you can see in the nearby chart, debt soared in the 1980s. The debt per person in 1981 was about $10,000. By the time the Berlin Wall fell, that figure doubled to $20,000.

The 1990s saw a modest increase in the national debt. Per person, debt increased less than 15 percent under Bill Clinton. Things would have been a lot worse, but our balance sheet was aided by the gridlock resulting from Bill Clinton having to work with a Republican congress.

Now, let's fast-forward to the year 2000, where things really start to get interesting.

By the new millennium's start, debt reached roughly $25,000 per person. This, however, didn't stop George W. Bush from going on a spending binge that would make shopaholics wince. He increased spending on income security programs by 44%; education by 63%; community development by 134%. Bush increased spending more than Bill Clinton in nearly every category of the budget. In just eight years, Bush managed to raise debt per person to over $38,000.

Believe it or not, there is an actual "limit" on our debt. The limit is more of a political tool than a real barometer of our debt. Nevertheless, it does provide some context for how bad our current situation is. Congress first established the debt ceiling at the onset of WWII in 1940; it was set at $49 billion (adjusted for inflation, that's equal to about $5,700 per person). It has since been raised 99 times and is now set at $14.3 trillion ($47,000 per person).

If you ask a liberal how our debt exploded in recent years, they will likely say Bush's expensive wars and tax cuts. The truth is that defense spending accounted for only 40 percent of all new spending under Bush.

 

Washington now hopes to cut the deficit in half by 2013.

But consider this: according to Congressional Budget Office (CBO) data, had Obama done nothing, the deficit would have declined by more than 75%. This is not fuzzy math coming from a right-wing think tank; that statistic is based on cold hard facts from the CBO's budget calculations.

Before a president proposes the annual budget, there is an established "baseline" – that is, what spending would have been had the previous budget trajectory continued. In March of 2009, the baseline (this included the "stimulus") projected that the deficit would decrease to $300 billion by 2013. In the same document, the CBO estimates that President Obama's proposed spending would mean that the deficit would be $672 billion that year.

In the year and a half since then, the situation has only gotten worse. The White House said in late July that, based on the latest spending assumptions, debt in 2013 would be $736 billion. Sure, that is still half of this year's $1.47 trillion deficit, but that's like applauding a smoker for cutting down from eight to four packs a day.

As of this writing, total debt stands at roughly $43,000 per person. To service this obligation, we are paying interest of about $188 billion (more than 10 times what Wal-Mart will make in profits this year). Unlike other areas of the budget, with interest payments we get absolutely nothing in return – the money simply goes to finance past overspending.

By 2020, debt per person is slated to reach more than $75,000 and interest payments will more than quadruple to $900 billion. That means we will be paying more in interest than the current size of Switzerland and Sweden's economies combined. And that's a best-case scenario – it assumes we continue to enjoy relatively low interest rates.

FOUNDING FACTS:

Not scared enough? Let’s break it down another way. In 2008, our national debt was 40 percent of GDP. Currently, it has risen to 62 percent of GDP and the Congressional Budget Office recently estimated that by 2020 it would be 90 percent of GDP.

But it gets much worse. Over the next 75 years, Medicare and Social Security are slated to spend $46 trillion more than they will take in. Former Treasury official Bruce Bartlett has estimated the total amount by which future spending is unfunded to be over $100 trillion. To put that in perspective, that's equivalent to taking this year's income from all Americans… nine times.

We are in the midst of a fiscal crisis that threatens to undo the financial fabric that makes America the land of plenty. We are doomed unless our elected officials can find the courage to make the politically unpopular spending cuts that are needed to put the country back on a sustainable path.

 



<< Return to the September 2010

There’s an economic axis of evil taking shape right now, and the people in charge of our government are too stupid to acknowledge and deal with what’s happening. The U.S. dollar and the entire financial system are at stake, and, as Glenn Beck reveals on "Glenn TV" Wednesday, our enemies’ PUBLISHED plans to take the entire thing down.

While all of this is happening, our own leaders are making everything worse. We’ve got Nancy Pelosi risking an international incident, accelerating China’s plans to collapse us. And when Biden SHOULD be focusing on the security of our country, he’s instead preoccupied with controlling the weather with his Inflation "Reduction" Act.

Glenn exposes the TRUE numbers on what that bill will do to your family’s budget. Add to that, they’re more than doubling the IRS to make sure you feel the pain. And if you think they won’t come for you, look at what they just did to the former president of the United States. The DOJ and FBI just went after the political opponent of their boss, Joe Biden.

This is what they are focused on, and the threat to the dollar — and the entire financial system — isn’t even on their radar. Pain is coming for us, and they don’t care one bit.

Watch the full episode below:

Want more from Glenn Beck?

To enjoy more of Glenn’s masterful storytelling, thought-provoking analysis and uncanny ability to make sense of the chaos, subscribe to BlazeTV — the largest multi-platform network of voices who love America, defend the Constitution and live the American dream.

Speaking before signing the “PACT Act of 2022” on Wednesday morning, President Joe Biden claimed that his wonderful economic plan "is working" and that somehow July’s annual inflation rate of 8.5% was actually “zero.”

“I just want to say a number: zero. Today we received news that our economy had 0% inflation in the month of July,” Biden said during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre dutifully echoed the president's not-at-all misleading claim:

The truth of the matter is that last month's inflation rate of 8.5% was a (small) step in the right direction, but only because it was lower than June's 41-year high of 9.1% — and the thing is, anyone who's graduated kindergarten knows it.

So, who do White House personnel think they're fooling? On the radio program Wednesday, Glenn Beck and producer Stu Burguiere broke down how the Biden administration came to this latest disingenuous conclusion about the economy, what the latest consumer price index actually shows, and why the inevitable Biden brag-fest will be unbearable.

Watch the video clip below. Can't watch? Download the podcast here.

Want more from Glenn Beck?

To enjoy more of Glenn’s masterful storytelling, thought-provoking analysis, and uncanny ability to make sense of the chaos, subscribe to BlazeTV — the largest multi-platform network of voices who love America, defend the Constitution, and live the American dream.

Glenn Beck: This is the ONLY endgame that makes sense for the FBI’s raid on Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home

(Left) Photo by James Devaney/GC Images (Right) Video screenshot

If you're celebrating this FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago, you have no idea how much this changes things. We don't do this in America. At least, we didn't. But the left cannot have Donald Trump be president again. His "America First" platform goes against everything they've been working for. So, what's their endgame here? On the radio program, Glenn Beck said there's really only one endgame that makes sense — and it should scare us all.

"If you are not for the destruction of America, you better pay attention quickly. This is a massive move," Glenn said of the Mar-a-Lago raid.

"And who has credibility on this? ... The right will believe Donald Trump, but nobody on the left, so you're not going to change any minds there. Do you think the right will believe the New York Times? MSNBC? NBC? CBS? Do you think we're going to believe the New York Times — the people who have been carrying water for the Biden crimes? The Clinton crimes? And ... I'm talking about her server and having her own State Department people go into a skiff, which is the top secret room, completely sealed off, going in and getting documents, cutting off 'top secret,' and then emailing them to her on her private server. And nothing? And now you're going to try to convince me [that] this has nothing to do with January 6?" he added.

"Remember the [allegations about] bank servers, [Trump] was pinging a bank? Untrue. Carter Page is a Russian spy? Untrue. Donald Trump is a Russian spy? ... Untrue. Collusion with Russia? Untrue. Ukraine, the perfect phone call? Not true. Not true. Wasn't a perfect phone call. Was not impeachable. The pee tape dossier? None of that was true. Here's why they can't have [Trump] as president of the United States. They can't have him as president of the United States because we are headed towards a completely new, all redesigned, non-capitalist, nonconstitutional Great Reset," Glenn argued. "They cannot have him be president because he is America first."

Glenn warned Americans that our federal government is accumulating massive power, case in point the 87,000 new IRS agents. "Coupled with the [IRS agents] they already have ... that's almost the size of our National Guard. Do you feel comfortable with that? Democrats? You don't think there's a possibility ... that someone ... might come in at some point and weaponize the IRS?"

He also warned that the FBI's raid on Donald Trump’s home has implications that stretch far beyond simple dislike for the former president. So what are they hoping to accomplish?

"What is the endgame? You make him into a martyr by throwing him into jail or killing him ... so you make him stronger? That doesn't make sense. Why would they want that?" Glenn asked. "So, what is their endgame? The only one that makes sense to me, is to stop him at any cost, then lunatics will take to the streets, and then [they] will have [their] evidence that the [right is] more dangerous than anyone could possibly imagine. Please, pray for your country."

Watch the video clip below to hear more from Glenn. Can't watch? Download the podcast here.

Want more from Glenn Beck?

To enjoy more of Glenn’s masterful storytelling, thought-provoking analysis, and uncanny ability to make sense of the chaos, subscribe to BlazeTV — the largest multi-platform network of voices who love America, defend the Constitution, and live the American dream.