John Steele Gordon's column in today's Wall Street Journal entitled "A Short Primer on the National Debt" is a must read. It's chock-full of important information, including a layman's glossary of terms used in the conversation about debt, a short history of America's national debt, and why the most important facet in the discussion about debt is its size relative to gross domestic product.
However, considering that Paul Krugman is still allowed to make absurd claims like this (in a nutshell, that the Bush tax cuts depleted revenue and added 20% to the debt to GDP ratio) without being laughed out of existence, I thought the following point from Gordon's article was a most valuable bit of information to have on hand next time you find yourself confronted with leftist lunacy of the Krugman variety.
The debt was 58.15% of GDP in 1990, a full 24 percentage points above its 1980 low. It continued to increase dramatically in the early 1990s, reaching 68.91% of GDP in 1994.
But then a Republican Congress was swept into power that year, the first time the GOP controlled both houses of Congress since 1954, and President Clinton tacked sharply to the center. In the next six years, while revenues increased 61%, federal outlays increased only 22%. The years 1998-2000 actually showed the first surpluses in the federal budget in 30 years. And the debt, relative to GDP, declined between 1994 and 2000 to 57.3% from 68.91%.
That decline ended in 2001 following the collapse of the dot-com bubble and rising unemployment in the resulting recession. By 2003 the debt-to-GDP ratio had risen to 61.7%. Many blame the Bush tax cuts for adversely impacting federal revenues, causing the debt to spiral upwards. But that is just not true. Federal revenues declined by almost 12% in the early years of the decade, but when the tax cuts fully kicked in in 2003, the economy began to grow strongly again and federal revenues increased 44% in the next four years, while unemployment fell to 4.2% from 6.2%. Federal outlays in those four years increased by only 26.4%, and while the debt-to-GDP ratio increased to 64.8% by 2007, that was still well below what it had been in 1994.
Only with the severe recession that officially began in mid-2007 did the debt-to-GDP ratio begin to soar once more. It reached 67.7% by Oct. 1, 2008, near the end of the Bush administration. A year later, under President Obama, it was at 84.4%, a year later still 93.8%. It is headed quickly towards 100% and beyond without fundamental change in how Washington handles the public fisc.