Que Pasa Doc - the Budget Deficits


Greg from Spokane asks a few questions, and does so in an appealing way.  As a voter who leans left, he'd just like to know what the other side is thinking and he can't figure it out. This is otherwise known as "idea exchange."  So, Dr. D will do his best :- )


Jeff, I have read your websites for years and have not felt worthy to comment. However, I have long wanted to find a non-mouthfoaming conservative to ask a few questions. Respectfully of course. Why does the deficit only matter to Republicans when the president is a Democrat? When Clinton left office The budget was in balance as far as the eye could see. So W. Bush gave top earners a HUGE tax cut, started 2 wars and established a new Medicare benefit without funding any of it.

Do you like the current crop of Republican hopefuls want perpetual war? Why does the party that purports to get the government out of our lives want the government to decide who you sleep with? Why does government employment go up more under Republican administrations? Historically speaking, why does U.S. economy do better under Democratic administrations? And why do Republicans, despite no evidence of fraud, try to keep people from voting? - See more at: http://seattlesportsinsider.com/comment/112718#comment-112718


Q1.  Which Presidents ran up the debt?

A1.  Here's a chart that puts the total U.S. debt in relation to the size of the U.S. economy:


US. Debt vs GDP
U.S. Debt vs GDP


1.  The Federal Debt was inaugated by Alexander Hamilton in the 1790's.  He was able to stabilize the U.S. Dollar, stabilize States who had burdensome debts, and repay obligations from the Revolutionary War.  These debts were shortly paid off.  As is very often the case -- such as with your home mortgage and your car -- borrowing can work well.  Leveraging future earnings can be productive, if it leads to production that multiplies geometrically.

2.  We borrowed our way out of the Great Depression, to an extent.

3.  World War II, obviously, was expensive.  Kind of worth it, though, not to be hailing Auf Fuhrer VI on this blog.

4.  Great job by every President (and Congress) from Truman up to (but not including) Reagan.

5.  Reagan's supporters would say that his arms buildup (1980-1988) won the Cold War and that this $$$$ was the reason there is one (good) Superpower in the world right now, as opposed to two (one good, one evil) Superpowers in the world.  When I was a kid, we were quite worried about nuclear holocaust.  So here too it can be argued that the return on money is quite tangible.

6.  William J. Clinton did indeed do an excellent job with the deficit.  Hats off to him.

7.  Presidents Bush and Obama have both raised the deficits sharply, and at about equal rates.  Bush's money was directed (I think) at fighting terrorism, wars, and bank bailouts; Obama's money to revive the economy and centralize health care etc.


Me personally, I believe there is a DISINGENUOUS aspect to the cries of "Deficit! Foul!" and there is a SINCERE element to it as well:

A) The disingenuous part comes when either party is trying to unseat an incumbent President.  When Al Gore is running against George Bush, you are going to hear the Democrats demagoguing the budget deficit as though no responsible President would fail to balance a budget.  When Mitt Romney is running against Barack Obama, you are going to hear exactly the opposite.  Both parties are well aware that budget deficits are SOMETIMES the intelligent approach to our problems.  They do not, of course, tell the voters this.

B) The SINCERE element, it seems to me, comes in when we ask "What will the borrowed money be SPENT on?"  It's like Mom & Dad arguing.  Is it okay to borrow money for power tools?  Of course, says Dad.  Of course not, says Mom.  Is it okay to borrow money to take the kids to Disneyland?  Of course, says Mom; that's a bucket list item we'll remember forever. Of course not, says Dad ...

Can we borrow money to cut taxes on the greedy rich?  Don't be silly, say the Democrats.

Should we borrow money for handouts going to the lazy poor?  Don't be dumb, say the Republicans.

May we borrow money to strengthen our military and national security?  Might we borrow it to expand the Federal government?  Do you think we should borrow it for free education?  One party is going to say Sure, that's a deficit we can live with; the other party is going to be aghast at the thought.  What do you want to spend other people's money ON?


From Dr. D's seat, it seems that voters (and pols) get really passionate about the deficit when the money is going to spent on the "wrong" things.  Republicans have few priorities that are attractive to Democrats; fewer still that are worth borrowing money for.  And vice versa.

Which brings us back to Square One.  Our priorities are diverse in this country, and they're not converging.  They're diverging.




lr's picture

until "Should we borrow money to give to the lazy." Right there with you. But then you sneak another buzzword into the debate casually that starts the food fight. Why do you consistently do this?

Edit: I see you've quickly changed the language in an attempt to balance to statements, which suggests to me you reread what you had originally written and noticed how unfair it was. Why is the first draft always the same same same though...

Should we borrow money for handouts going to the lazy poor? - See more at: http://seattlesportsinsider.com/blogs/f-500-forum/que-pasa-doc-the-budge...
Should we borrow money for handouts going to the lazy poor? - See more at: http://seattlesportsinsider.com/blogs/f-500-forum/que-pasa-doc-the-budge...
lr's picture

I replied to the original draft, which only used the word lazy. Not "lazy poor". And it only said "the rich", not "the greedy rich". So it was directly pitting "the rich" versus "the lazy" in his given example. Believe me, I reread it 3 or 4 times before I responded. And it was changed while I was typing my response.


I typically scan through my articles 10-12 times, correcting this and that.  Scanned through and realized "greedy rich" vs. "lazy poor" would be clearer than "rich" vs "lazy."  In both cases, before and after, we're recapitulating what you hear on TV.

I don't personally believe that the average person on food stamps is "lazy."  I've helped too many people get filed for them.

We tweaked to "greedy rich" and "lazy poor" in order to acheive the kind of explicit hair-fine balance that would be less likely to set off LR.  ... ;- )  

Let me give a little bow of thanks that you ain't my editor, bro'.  Have had a lifetime's worth of wordsmithing that misses the point of my writing and, as in this case, the wordsmithing must be attended to with all due gravity.  A single word betrays the author's credibility, don'cha know, so we are morally driven to get the Word right.

My patience for this ran out about 1992.  Let's just agree that I'm unfair and move on.

lr's picture

It's one thing to admit your biases, which most of us that comment here, myself included, have. It's another to lock threads and scold the commenters (as you just did to Matt, and have done to me more than once) and paralyze discussions that have gotten a little heated while contributing to the polarization with the implicative or sometimes outright direct language or tone of many of your pieces.

This ain't about getting one word wrong once. It's about throwing a word or four into every other KK that are obvious buzzwords, then waving your finger at people when the discussion gets a little heated as though you have no culpability in the outcome. It's hypocritical.


A blog moderator has to guard his flock jealously. Doc is extremely fair - almost to a fault. Almost. Better to err on the side of caution lest it degenerate into a troll zone. Nobody should want that,

And frankly, Doc, I am not sure what these buzzwords are. Seriously. Is "Climate Denier" one of them? "Science denier"? I personally find these terms somewhat silly, but other folks might take offense, being believers of climate and the scientific method.

Perhaps lr could create a list and you could offer trigger alerts should you feel the need to use any of them to make your point. 

lr's picture

during this KK deluge, a few people now have taken issue to varying degree with some of the ways he phrases questions or statements. My point isn't to say I can't handle it, I can. I'm not offended that he has different political leanings. My point is that he gets on his high horse and wags his finger at Matt rather insultingly the other day for  being screechy, while article after article there are small little words, apparently unnoticed by you, placed here and there that rile people up. He's adding twigs to the very fire he claims to be trying to smother. You feel like he's a decidely neutral moderator. A few of us have now written that we don't agree with you.

It's kind of a shame too because I was 70% of the way through this article and found myself agreeing with most of it and saw it as a good way to calm some of the rhetoric thats been flaring up over the last fortnight. Then right on cue...


I'm not pretending Doc is neutral. I believe he's fair, however. I just want to know what these buzzwords are. I struggled trying to figure out why you would get thrown for a loop over whatever it was, comparing greedy rich to lazy, then apparently lazy, then lazy poor. I got what Doc was saying, but I was trying to figure out what molehill you were trying to climb here that apparently ruined your whole experience. It's like we need a list of trigger alert words or something, to keep us from losing you.

lr's picture

in this thread, how "rich" were compared against "lazy". Myself, GLS, and tjm have made comments recently questioning the "fairness" of the tone or choice of words used. If you won't accept my explanation, after giving it three times, ask them. I don't like engaging with you anymore because your game is ring around the rosie. It's tiresome.

Last effort, this is my only point. I CAN handle a debate. I'm a big boy. I didn't get my feelings hurt. I'm not a college kid. Was what he wrote egregious? No, it wasn't. It was minor. But it's a frequent thing, these trivial minor phrases used here and there. I understand that to you, Rick82, they mean nothing. Some of the others here, however, we pick up on these subtle innuendos, and it only adds to the eventual breakdown of dialogue. Case in point, instead of talking about this article, here I am repeating myself for the third time.

What I specifically took issue with is the hypocritcal nature of this cycle: He posts something, sometimes it gets heated and breaks down, he'll come riding in knight in shining armor style, give the "we don't use that kind of tone here" speech, berate someone (did you see how he spoke to Matt the other day?), and start the cycle over again with the next article throwing around rich v poor, or "explain how Bernie isn't a communist" with Che Guevara banners. If you aren't picking up on this I can't explain it any more clearly. If you are and it just doesn't bother you, whatever. But there are a few people here who don't think it's fair and balanced, and clearly it adds to bickering and takes a little of the spotlight off the people who post really insightful interesting stuff.


Thiese terms are why I was confused, and I appreciate your elucidation. You've used both these terms, so I want to know what these buzzwords are. I didn't see Doc's response to Matt, but man, Matt can really explode. Try friending him on Facebook :-) - (love ya, Matt).

rich vs. poor : frankly, the rich lose that argument for many of us, even if the poor are lazy. Che Guevara - is that a trigger? I kinda thought lefties (buzzword?) loved Che Guevara. Is there a Swedish or Norweigan politician with as recognizable a face he could have used? to my way of thinking, Che is a nice middle choice between an invisible Norweigian and Joe Stalin or Castro. 

Is it wrong to compare Sanders with a communist? There's good room for dialogue there, from my viewpoint.  Hugo Chavez is a "socialist," right? Why does Sanders get a pass when someone from the right wonders if he isn't closer to a Hugo Chavez than a Norweigian? What's the difference between Northern European socialism and South America's? Is it because Sanders is white? 

lr's picture

Your opinion that Che being the middle ground between W.E. socialism and communist dictatorships proves exactly my point. In no universe is Sanders, who has very clearly and openly established his platform for the last 30 years, somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. If WES is a 1, Che is around a 5 (in your opinion) and communist Russia or Cuba is a 10, Sanders is exactly a 1 or maybe even slightly off the scale, 0 or -1. That's why it's provocative to ask, "how do we know he's not a communist?" and fly the Che flag around. It's a play right from the O'reilly or Hannity playbook. It's a matter of using certain words where they don't belong that makes the other side look less credible. As I said before, its a way to start on the opponents 35 yard line.

On the flipside, imagine if someone started a thread with the question, does Marco Rubio want to abolish the minimum wage and all public and private workers unions?, with Charles Koch's picture smiling at the reader. Would that have been a "fair" way to start a dialogue? (Actually if you swapped Rubio out for Scott Walker the question wouldn't even be all that crazy) Or might it have ticked a few people off here?


This country is already a mix of socialism and capitalism. There quite a number of systems we have arranged that are the exact definition of socialism. That someone like Sanders believes we ought to expand on it some at the expense of a little bit of capitalism is not as earth shattering as many in the US seem to believe. Sure, it would be a noticeable shift compared to how we've always done things. But when many first world, highly rated, healthy, happy countries are already doing some of the things Sanders wants to do, and doing them better than WE are, surely you can admit there are some good ideas we could adopt. America doesn't have the market on "greatness" cornered.

Mike L.'s picture

I’ll preface my comments by stating my own biases. I likely agree with lr/Diderot/others on the liberal side on 90% plus of policy issues.  I also believe Doc's piece above is well thought out and an attempt at genuine middle ground.  I think lr's first comments about “always the same same” and “buzzwords” are extraordinarily unhelpful.

I mostly agree with your points A and B.  Budget deficits are much more useful to politicians as a cudgel for the minority party and a tool for attaining policy priorities for the majority.  Occasionally, both parties will drop all pretense of caring about the deficit if both can obtain suitable policy priorities, the “tax extender deal” at the end of 2015 being a prime example. That said, I find your framework somewhat incomplete, and would propose the addition of a third point. If WHO is point A, and WHAT is point B, then point C in my framework is WHEN.

To try and be concise with this point, I believe that you save money when times are good and you utilize deficits when times are bad.  If a recession hits, every individual will make the (wise for them!) decision to cut their spending while times are hard.  But my spending is your income!  This paradox of thrift is a devastating impact on the economy.  Government run deficits are a good thing in those situations, and can prevent longer term economic damage that has leaves government finances even worse.  As an example, Bush sponsored and passed the 2003 tax cuts in response to a fairly severe (it only seems minor when compared to 2008 and 1929) recession. While I disagree on the what (Point B), I have no issue with who was proposing the deficits (point A) or the timing thereof (point C).    

As a postscript, I have been reading for a very long time, since the SportSpot days.  I find my opinion on the Mariners is almost always cited by others with more evidence and wisdom, so don’t comment on that topic.  Politics/Economics is more in my wheelhouse, and I have enjoyed the blogs trend toward politics early this offseason.  I find it a good check on my biases to read people I respect and yet strongly disagree with.  That said, I have enjoyed it much less the past two weeks or so.

These are important matters, and I am compassionate towards the passions behind them.  But the more that passion leaks into anger and vitriol, it weakens the openness of other to listen. In my opinion, this is counterproductive to what you’re trying to do (convince others), and what I believe we are trying to do (discuss things productively).  Politics are nothing but the identity of a group of people, and identity is the hardest thing in life to change.  Additional care choosing your words to do so is a worthwhile investment.


Lastly, I had some specific thoughts on your list above, and wrote out detailed thoughts towards them.  It felt critical when I started and now feels a bit superfluous. I didn’t have the heart to delete them, so I moved it to the end instead:

1-3: Totally Agree.

4: I believe there are a few negative examples in there that you’re omitting.  In my opinion, Hoover’s contractionary fiscal and monetary policies contributed mightily to the depth of the recession and ensuing cost of recovery. Jefferson’s actions toward the 1st bank were very nearly disastrous towards the fate of out union in the war of 1812.  This is somewhat tangential, but does provide some historical record that inaction in the face of crisis can be more damaging to the country and budgets long term than short term budget deficits.

5. I think reasonable people can disagree on the centrality of US monetary policy on the breakup of the USSR.  While I probably wouldn’t agree that the 80s deficits drove that result, the downside risk if I am wrong (nuclear holocaust, as you aptly put), is a strong point on your side of the ledger.

6. I think Pres. Clinton probably gets a little more credit for the strong economy of the 90’s than he (or any president really) deserves, but otherwise agree.

7. Here I will disagree somewhat with your account of the facts as stipulated. I will start on the Bush side:

Bush’s 2003 tax cut was approximately 1% of GDP (I am omitting the 2003 tax cut for now).  Considering the budget deficit during his presidency was generally between 1.5% and 3%, I would say he allocated 33-50% of his deficits to non-countercyclical tax cuts.  I agree terrorism/wars were another significant part of the deficit.  Lastly, Bush’s bank bailout bill was extraordinarily successful from a purely budget perspective, returning significant amounts of cash to the Treasury in the long term.  The 3.1% budget deficit of 2008 was not far out of line with the previous years as the costs of the recession had not yet really started to sink in.  So in short, I would say Terrorism/Wars/Tax Cuts as opposed to Terrorism/Wars/Bank Bailouts.

As for Obama, I agree about the money spent on both short term stimulus and “automatic stabilizers” (the country will spend more on unemployment insurance and Medicaid when a bunch of people lose their jobs at once).  The health care bill, however, raised greater revenue then costs.  Projected costs have also come in below expectations.  Whether raising taxes to fund health care subsidies is a good thing or not, people can clearly disagree,  but the arithmetic thus far has been neutral in terms of budget deficits(included links on this as I suspect some may disagree with this point).





My comments to the debt 'phases' in American history were nothing more than 5-second impressions, good for nothing more than a bit of historical sweep.

The more detailed observations by you, Cool Papa and others were the type of feedback I was looking for.  Gracias.

lr's picture

As you clearly put a lot of time and thought into it and made some really informative observations, so I'll keep this interruption brief.

When I initially responded to this article, some of the phrasing he used was different than what you read. It certainly felt to me that it was adding to the growing antagonism among some of the comments lately, and was a little hypocritical given how he's treated such offenses in the last week. That's all. I'm the third or fourth commenter in the last week or so to make mention of this kind of thing, so it's not like I'm just imagining things.

As I said in my first reply, I was right there with him for most of the article. I was enjoying it.



I have been wanting to broach the subject of fiscal responsibility, but did not want to fire the first mortar.  

While debt is useful, I really think the information is better expressed as deficit spending as a percentage of gross domestic product.

As the graph clearly shows, Bill Clinton was the only president that presided over a budget surplus in the last half century.  It is trivially easy to run on a platform of cutting everything you dislike, but neither party shows the will power to cut both what they like and don't like.  As participants in government, the Republican party is not a vehicle for achieving fiscal responsibility.  

As I see it, saying you want to cut waste is just a euphemism for cutting what you don't like.  George W. Bush believed in the power of faith focused organizations as a powerful tool for social change.  Faith had been transformational in his life, and in the lives of so many other Americans.  This view this as an undeniable fact, but was it the right policy to invest government funds in these organizations?  It is welfare, afterall.



"When Clinton left office The budget was in balance as far as the eye could see." 

This gets repeated often but is completely untrue. Clinton never had a balanced budget. Instead, there was a PROJECTED surplus that supposedly would occur in the future. This projection depended on the economy continuing to be red hot from the tech boom forever. That was a ridiculous expectation that should not have been taken seriously. People will claim that CBO numbers show he really did have surpluses in his last three years, but those rely on accounting tricks the government uses to obfuscate its actual finances. Specifically, the government claims that money borrowed from itself is actually income. The reality is that the debt increased every single year under Clinton and was increased further by his final budget (which covered most of Bush's first year).


And yet the best part of the debt-to-GDP graph occurred during his Presidency, no?  

Are you saying that he borrowed from Peter (the future) to pay Paul) as Richard Nixon was accused of doing in 1970-71?  Or that any President would have looked as good due to the tech boom?  or ?

I don't get economics at all, not even w/r/t the question "Is it the Congress we credit with positive budgets or is it the President?".  In this case the original post actually was a stub for Think Tankers who know a lot more about the subject than I do.


Will stand by the observation, though, that either party tends to use "budget deficits" to demagogue the elections.  Some issues, that's not true, but this one sure seems that way.


First, the expanding economy meant that the debt-to-GDP ratio necessarily improved.

Second, the expanding economy meant that revenues to the government increased.

Third, it's accounting gimmicks that claim that money spent now is still available to give to future beneficiaries.

Fourth, it was Clinton's tax increases.

Fifth, it was the spending restraint by the Republican Congress.

All of these helped in regards to your graph during the 90's, but Clinton never reduced the absolute amount of the debt. As for your original issue, all politicians, whether Republican or Democrat, are hypocrites. We are seeing this clearly when it comes to the current opening on the Supreme Court.


All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with amendments as on other Bills.

Choose whatever party, time period or President you want...the ultimate responsibility falls on Congress.  Presidents get too much credit/blame.

As long as we've got the system we've got, the cancer will grow.  The cancer is money.  If you think Citizens United was a good idea...I don't know what to tell you.


Right now a number of us are working like mad to keep the GOP from making the mistake of a lifetime: keeping Trump from becoming our candidate. He has taken advantage of free media to become the champion of the "dispossessed" (if you will). Some men with very deep pockets need to spend big money, now and fast, to keep it from happening: to get the message out that this guy is a con artist - to educate the masses who think Trump is some sort of brilliant businessman who tells it like it is. We need to explain that he tells it like it isn't. We need to spend money, fast.

Diderot, what you are proposing is that millionaires should not be allowed to spend millions to stop a billionaire who uses the free media to con the working man. If Trump were Sanders, I would guess you would be much more incensed about rich people using their own money to stop a "man of the people." But we would have no way to stop Trump, if you had your way. Furthermore, Trump is a demagogue who was fully able to spread his chicanery even if the most stringent controls of campaign money were in place.


The Congress gets too little credit or blame for deficits. Presidents have more sway over economic growth (by setting tax and other policies early in their terms). But Congresses send the budgets along.

GregfromSpokane's picture

Thanks for addressing this issue Jeff. And your observation is spot on as to the conclusion that I was getting at. Take for example the so-called debt ceiling. Under Reagan, it was routinely raised (19 times)! And really why would you not? After all this is just about paying the bill you already spent. Why would you risk the full faith and credit of the U.S.A.? The Republicans are using it like a cudgel to take money from social programs while simultaneously adding more defense $$ directly to the deficit. You have correctly identified the hypocrisy. I have to say raising the defense budget more than even the pentagon wants seems excessive, especially when you're putting it on the Visa! 3 trillion dollars wasted in Iraq under false pretenses, not to mention our young people's blood in the sand. Let me say in conclusion, I really enjoy the thoughtful discourse here, it's a breath of fresh air on the interweb.

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