"Five years ago, our national debt was $10 trillion. Today it is over $17 trillion. It has grown some 60% in just five years. It took 43 presidents over 200 years to build $10 trillion in debt, one president in five years to grow it over 60%."
— Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, at the Heritage Action's Conservative Policy Summit, Feb. 10.
Now that the annual flap over raising the debt limit has come and gone without too much fuss, can both parties agree to a moratorium on silly debt comparisons?
We don't mean to single out Cruz, as his statement is fairly typical. For instance, here is a recent tweet from Fairfax, Va., School Board member Elizabeth L. Schultz:
"#nationaldebt 1/20/09? $10,626,877,048,913.08 Today? $17,258,793,918,103.22 in just 5 years #justsaying you're paying @KingNoah22"
And here is a certain candidate for the presidency, then-Sen. Barack Obama, making a similar point about George W. Bush during an appearance in Fargo, N.D., in 2008:
"The problem is that the way Bush has done it over the last eight years is to take out a credit card from the Bank of China in the name of our children, driving up our national debt from $5 trillion for the first 42 presidents. Number 43 added $4 trillion by his lonesome, so that we now have over $9 trillion of debt that we are going to have to pay back — $30,000 for every man, woman and child. That's irresponsible. It's unpatriotic."
Yikes, the future president said such a debt increase was "unpatriotic" and "irresponsible." But this is really not a very good use of numbers. Let's explain why.
The biggest problem with this factoid is that every president inherits a debt from the previous one, making it virtually certain that the pile of debt is going to grow. The numbers cited almost always involve gross debt, which includes intergovernmental loans such as bonds held by Social Security. So even when there was a budget surplus during Bill Clinton's presidency, the gross debt climbed because of the bonds issued to Social Security.
(For a detailed history of U.S. public debt, go to wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_United_States_public_debt.)
Cruz complains that the debt has grown 60% under Obama. But let's look at what happened under Cruz's hero, Ronald Reagan, using the fiscal year numbers in the historical budget tables:
Size of national debt when Reagan took office: $1 trillion
Size after five years: $2.1 trillion (110% increase)
Size at the end of his presidency: $2.9 trillion (190% increase)
In other words, as a matter of raw numbers, the national debt soared under Reagan. But he was a piker compared to wartime presidents such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.
As Roosevelt battled the Great Depression and World War II, the debt soared from $23 billion in 1933 to $266 billion in 1945, or more than a 1,000% increase.
Wilson, meanwhile, boosted the national debt from $3 billion in 1913 to $24 billion in 1921, for an increase of more than 700%. In fact, it was during Wilson's presidency — and World War I — that the nation debt limit was first established.
At current trends, Obama is on track to double the national debt, which means he would essentially match the performance of George W. Bush, whose handling of the debt he had once labeled "unpatriotic" and "irresponsible."
Raw numbers, lacking context and not adjusted for inflation or the size of the economy, are inherently misleading.
Both parties have played fast and loose with these comparisons. Can there perhaps be a bipartisan pledge to drop this line of attack?
The biggest problem with this factoid is that every president inherits a debt from the previous one, making it virtually certain that the pile of debt is going to grow.
Glenn Kessler writes the "Fact Checker" blog for The Washington Post.