The Washington Post belatedly writes an explainer on just where the massive U.S. debt came from, while a ghost from the Reagan era comes back to haunt George Will.
From the Washington Post, the truth, unvarnished:
The nation’s unnerving descent into debt began a decade ago with a choice, not a crisis.
In January 2001, with the budget balanced and clear sailing ahead, the Congressional Budget Office forecast ever-larger annual surpluses indefinitely. The outlook was so rosy, the CBO said, that Washington would have enough money by the end of the decade to pay off everything it owed.
Voices of caution were swept aside in the rush to take advantage of the apparent bounty. Political leaders chose to cut taxes, jack up spending and, for the first time in U.S. history, wage two wars solely with borrowed funds. “In the end, the floodgates opened,” said former senator Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), who chaired the Senate Budget Committee when the first tax-cut bill hit Capitol Hill in early 2001.
Now, instead of tending a nest egg of more than $2 trillion, the federal government expects to owe more than $10 trillion to outside investors by the end of this year. The national debt is larger, as a percentage of the economy, than at any time in U.S. history except for the period shortly after World War II.
Polls show that a large majority of Americans blame wasteful or unnecessary federal programs for the nation’s budget problems. But routine increases in defense and domestic spending account for only about 15 percent of the financial deterioration, according to a new analysis of CBO data.
The biggest culprit, by far, has been an erosion of tax revenue triggered largely by two recessions and multiple rounds of tax cuts. Together, the economy and the tax bills enacted under former president George W. Bush, and to a lesser extent by President Obama, wiped out $6.3 trillion in anticipated revenue. That’s nearly half of the $12.7 trillion swing from projected surpluses to real debt. Federal tax collections now stand at their lowest level as a percentage of the economy in 60 years.
Big-ticket spending initiated by the Bush administration accounts for 12 percent of the shift. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have added $1.3 trillion in new borrowing. A new prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients contributed another $272 billion. The Troubled Assets Relief Program bank bailout, which infuriated voters and led to the defeat of several legislators in 2010, added just $16 billion — and TARP may eventually cost nothing as financial institutions repay the Treasury.
Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus, a favorite target of Republicans who blame Democrats for the mounting debt, has added $719 billion — 6 percent of the total shift, according to the new analysis of CBO data by the nonprofit Pew Fiscal Analysis Initiative. All told, Obama-era choices account for about $1.7 trillion in new debt, according to a separate Washington Post analysis of CBO data over the past decade. Bush-era policies, meanwhile, account for more than $7 trillion and are a major contributor to the trillion-dollar annual budget deficits that are dominating the political debate.
The Post also offers a helpful graphic, which shows that of all the things the federal government has done to explode the deficits, the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts are the single biggest, and combined with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, account for $3 trillion of the $8.4 trillion in debt piled up since 2001 ($4 trillion if you include the additional tax cuts since then):
Meanwhile, on “This Week,” the roundtable took on the issue of how to reverse America’s debt problem, and David Stockman, who was Ronald Reagan’s budget director, made the truth even plainer (in a response to financial reporter Chrystia Freeland), which had to make George Will’s face get red hot:
FREELAND: You worked for Ronald Reagan. Do you think the American economy — so you’re, like, a red-blooded capitalist — could it sustain higher taxes than it has now?
STOCKMAN: Absolutely. In 1982, we were looking at the jaws of the worst recession since the 1930s. We overdid it in 1981, cut taxes too much. We came back with a big deficit reduction plan in 1982. Unemployment’s at 10 percent, the economy is in dire shape, and we raise taxes by 1.2 percent of GDP, which would be $150 billion a year right now — not 10 years down the road — but right now.
Watch the full roundtable segment:
And here’s part two of the roundtable, which ends with Stockman taking a full-barrel shot at the Federal Reserve:
I’ll leave you with one more clip from that Wapo piece:
some key advocates of the tax cuts now say such a large reduction was probably ill-advised.
“Nobody would have thought that all these things would have happened after you cut taxes,” Domenici said. “That you’d have two wars and not pay for them. That you’d have another recession. A huge extravaganza of expenditures” for the military and homeland security after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. “You would pause before you did it, if you knew.”
Bill Thomas, the former House Ways and Means Committee chairman who helped shepherd the tax cuts through Congress, defended the 2003 package as “fuel for the economy.” But he said in an interview that the 2001 measure was larded with “stuff that I was not all that wild about,” including bipartisan priorities such as a big increase in the child tax credit and a break for married couples — provisions Thomas believes did little to promote economic growth and amounted to “throwing money out the window.”
“I couldn’t do anything about it,” said Thomas, a California Republican who retired in 2006. “You’re the candy man when you advocate those kinds of tax cuts.”