Debt in the Time of Plague
On August 11, President Joseph Robinette Biden spoke about his Build Back Better proposal, and he took the opportunity to allege this: “This isn’t going to be anything like my predecessor, whose unpaid tax cuts and other spending added nearly $8 trillion in his four years to the national debt. Eight trillion dollars.”
That Trump could have added $8T to the national debt made this kid’s ears prick up. Being fairly familiar with the history of federal deficits, I knew that the final deficit numbers for the first three fiscal years under Trump, 2017-2019, were each under a trillion bucks. If that’s correct, then an $8T total for four years would mean that the feds had borrowed more than $5T in Trump’s last year. Can that be right?
The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has a webpage at WhiteHouse.gov called Historical Tables that features data going back more than two centuries to the first Congress in 1789. There seem to be more than fifty of these tables running down the webpage, and they are all in Excel, or XLS (.xlsx). The tables are usually available in a single PDF, but that isn’t the case right now.
If one looks at Table 1.1 of the last PDF, one sees a line near the bottom that reads “2020 estimate.” In the third column over one sees a total deficit of -1,083,419. Since the table’s numbers are expressed in millions that means the feds were estimating a total deficit of -$1.08T for fiscal year 2020, the first trillion-dollar deficit since 2012. Had that deficit projection held, Trump would have presided over deficits over four fiscal years not of -$8T, but of -$3.5T.
As fiscal 2020 ended a year ago, we can know what the actual deficit for 2020 was. But we must resort to the current Table 1.1, which right now is only available in Excel. When we look at that table, we see that the final total deficit for 2020 was actually -3,129,234M, or -$3.1T, the biggest deficit in history, and rather larger than the $2.4T debt run up over Trump’s first three fiscal years. When we add up the final numbers for the four deficits of 2017-2020, we get a total of -$5.5T.
That’s still a long way from Biden’s claim of an $8T cumulative debt. Assuming the numbers at OMB’s Historical Tables are correct, what could account for this discrepancy? One problem here is that we’re looking at four fiscal years, not a term in office, and the two don’t overlap. Because federal fiscal years begin on October 1, by looking at completed fiscal years under Trump, we’re counting three months and 20 days before Trump assumed office and we’re not counting his last three months and 20 days.
The solution is to look at debt accumulated from Trump’s first day in office to his last, and both of those days are January 20, Inauguration Day. I had already keyed off Jan. 20s in a 2017 article to ascertain what the actual deficit was for Barack Obama. Using the Treasury’s Debt to the Penny webpage, which allows one to plug in dates, I discovered that over his eight years Obama had presided over an increase in the public debt of $8.096T.
On August 13, two days after Biden’s speech, FactCheck.org of the Annenberg outfit ran “Biden Leaves Misleading Impression on U.S. Debt” by Lori Robertson, who confirmed my number for Obama’s debt as “$8.1 trillion”:
The total national debt did go up by $7.8 trillion during Trump’s four years. It rose from nearly $20 trillion the day Trump was inaugurated to nearly $27.8 trillion on the day he left office.
That figure, however, includes money the U.S. owes to itself. We typically use figures for the amount of debt held by the public, which went up by $7.2 trillion during Trump’s time in office. Debt held by the public went up by $8.1 trillion during the eight years of former President Barack Obama and Vice President Biden.
It’s prudent to be skeptical of info reported by the various “fact checker” groups, but the above is sound. Ms. Robertson notes that total is broken into “money the U.S. owes itself,” which the Treasury Department calls “intragovernmental holdings,” and “debt held by the public,” which we’ll call “public debt.” The public debt is the real debt.
Robertson’s link is to Treasury’s Debt to the Penny webpage, which means she used the same resource and method as I had four years ago. Back then, Debt to the Penny was at TreasuryDirect. (One wonders how the feds can justify spending money on redesigning a webpage that does the same thing as the old webpage when they’re running trillion-dollar deficits.)
As laudable as Robertson’s reporting is, she could have plugged one more date into Debt to the Penny to break down the $7.2T public debt she credits Trump with. It turns out that the public debt on Jan. 20, 2020, was $17.1T, a run-up over three years of -$2.7T.
So for Robertson’s number to be correct, Trump would have had to have presided over a $4.5T deficit in his last full year in office. The public debt was $21.6T on Trump’s last day in office, Jan. 20, 2021. It seems that Trump did indeed preside over a run-up in the public debt over his last year in office of nearly -$4.5T.
That horrendous debt from Jan. 20, 2020, to one year later prorates out to an average of more than $1.1T for every 90 days of Trump’s final year. In absolute dollars, with no accounting for inflation, Trump’s last year sets the record for debt… but why?
It’s because 2020 was the year the plague came, the year the coronavirus reared its ugly head. Under Trump, the public debt had been on target to rise by less than $4T in his term in office, which would have been better than the first term of Obama-Biden, which was over $5T. But the global pandemic hit. Perhaps Joe Biden thinks the feds shouldn’t have spent so much battling the virus.
Here’s the problem with the above: presidents don’t borrow and spend. Congress in its collective “wisdom” does that. So if one keys off of years which begin on Jan. 20 rather than on the first day of the fiscal year (Oct. 1), the debt still belongs to Congress. Even so, our corrupt media for decades has laid the onus for the debt on the president.
(NOTE: If one plugs into Debt to the Penny the dates for fiscal years 2017-2020, one finds that the results don’t jibe with OMB’s. Debt to the Penny gives a total run-up in the public debt of $6.8T, while OMB’s Table 1.1 gives a total, as reported above, of $5.5T. The discrepancy for fiscal 2020 alone is around $1.1T, and the deficits for the first three years also don’t match. So, is either of these datasets correct?)
There’s an undeniable synchronicity in the “disaster socialism” of 2020 and 2009, and it’s that in both years Democrats controlled the budget. And in both years, as borrowing rose past the trillion-dollar mark, the U.S. House of Representatives, the body in which budgets begin, was led by Nancy Pelosi, “the most expensive woman in history.”
When a president proposes massive new spending, as Biden is doing with his $3.5T Build Back Better boondoggle, it won’t amount to anything unless Congress approves it and passes appropriations. If Biden can be so dishonest about attributing $8T of new debt to Trump rather than to Congress, why should we believe him about his own spending proposal costing “zero.”?
Jon N. Hall of ULTRACON OPINION is a programmer from Kansas City.
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