Deficits are nothing new. It's the trend that should worry us.
by John Steele Gordon
When President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 into law yesterday, he was adding to what is already almost guaranteed to be the largest deficit in American history. In January, the Congressional Budget Office projected that the deficit this year would be $1.2 trillion before the stimulus package. That's more than twice the deficit in fiscal 2008, more than the entire GDP of all but a handful of countries, and more, in nominal dollars, than the entire United States national debt in 1982.
But while the sum is huge, it is not in and of itself threatening to the solvency of the Republic. At 8.3% of GDP, this year's deficit is by far the largest since World War II. But the total debt is, as of now, still under 75% of GDP. It was almost 130% following World War II. (Japan's national debt right now is not far from 180% of that nation's GDP.)
Still, it's the trend that is worrisome, to put it mildly. There have always been two reasons for adding to the national debt. One is to fight wars. The second is to counteract recessions. But while the national debt in 1982 was 35% of GDP, after a quarter century of nearly uninterrupted economic growth and the end of the Cold War the debt-to-GDP ratio has more than doubled.
It is hard to escape the idea that this happened only because Democrats and Republicans alike never said no to any significant interest group. Despite a genuine economic emergency, the stimulus bill is more about dispensing goodies to Democratic interest groups than stimulating the economy. Even Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) -- no deficit hawk when his party is in the majority -- called it "porky."
It was not ever thus. Before the Great Depression, balancing the budget and paying down the debt were considered second only to the defense of the country as an obligation of the federal government. Before 1930, the government ran surpluses in two years out of three. In 1865, the vast debt run up in the Civil War amounted to about 30% of GDP; by 1916 it was less than a tenth of that.
There even was a time when the U.S. made it a deliberate policy to pay off the national debt entirely -- and succeeded in doing so. It remains to this day the only time in history a major country has been debt free. Ironically, the president who achieved this was the founder of the modern Democratic Party, Andrew Jackson.
Jackson was a Jeffersonian through and through. The smaller the federal government, the more he liked it. And, like Jefferson, he hated banks, speculation and the "money interest." Unlike Jefferson, however, he was born poor and made his own fortune. An early personal encounter with debt had taught him to fear it. When the notes of someone who had bought land from him proved worthless, he became liable for the debts he had secured with those notes, and it took him years to pay them off.
When he ran for president the first time, in 1824, Jackson called the debt a "national curse." He vowed to "pay the national debt, to prevent a monied aristocracy from growing up around our administration that must bend to its views, and ultimately destroy the liberty of our country."
"How gratifying," he wrote in 1829 as he began his presidency, "the effect of presenting to the world the sublime spectacle of a Republic of more than 12 million happy people, in the 54th year of her existence . . . free from debt and with all . . . [her] immense resources unfettered!"
When Jackson entered the White House, the national debt, which had reached $125 million at the end of the War of 1812, had already been reduced to $48 million. To get it to zero he was perfectly willing to forego what were then called "internal improvements" and are now known as infrastructure projects. One Kentucky congressman, after a trip to the White House to beg Jackson to sign one such bill, reported to his allies that "nothing less than a voice from Heaven would prevent the old man from vetoing the Bill, and [I doubt] whether that would!"
At the end of 1834, Jackson reported in the State of the Union message that the country would be debt free as of Jan. 1, 1835, with a Treasury balance of $440,000. Government revenues that year would be twice expenses.
It didn't last long, to be sure. The great prosperity of the early 1830s broke in the summer of 1836 when a bubble in land speculation, fueled by easy credit, abruptly ended. The bubble burst, ironically enough, thanks to Andrew Jackson's issuance of the "specie circular," which required that all land bought from the government, except that actually settled on, be paid for in gold or silver.
By the next spring, just as Jackson left the White House, the longest contraction in American history -- six years -- had begun. As one Wall Streeter put it, "The fortunes we have heard so much about in the days of speculation, have melted like the snows before an April sun." Federal revenues fell by half that year and the national debt was back, this time for good.
While today there is no hope of balancing the budget -- or wisdom in trying to -- until the economy substantially improves, we could make a sort of down payment on reforming Washington's porky ways by simply starting to tell the truth.
It has been widely noted that 2009 will have the first "trillion-dollar deficit" in American history. Actually it's the second. In fiscal 2008, the national debt increased from $9 trillion to slightly over $10 trillion. Yet the budget deficit in the last fiscal year was officially reported as being $455 billion. How could the national debt have increased by considerably more than twice the "deficit"? Simple. Just call the money borrowed from the Social Security trust fund an "intragovernmental transfer" and exclude it from the calculation of the deficit.
Corporate managers have gone to jail for less book cooking than that.
Mr. Gordon is the author of "Hamilton's Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt" (Walker, 1997).