The August 29th New York Times Week in Review featured an article entitled, “Policy Options Dwindle as Economic Fear Grows,” by Peter S. Goodman. As Goodman recounts the drumbeat of bad economic data released in recent days and the obstacles to using traditional “stimulus,” he offers this explanation for why Congress is reluctant to add more to the national debt:
The dramatic expansion of the national debt – which began in the Bush administration, via hefty tax cuts and two wars – has ratcheted up fears that, one day, creditors like China and Japan might demand sharply higher interest rates to finance American spending.
During the course of the Bush Administration, the national debt increased from $5.6 trillion to $10.0 trillion. Today, it is nearly $13.4 trillion. Certainly, the Bush Administration did significantly grow the size of government (total federal spending was $1.8 trillion in 2000 and $3.0 trillion in 2008, in comparison, during that time federal receipts increased by $500 billion), but the Bush tax cuts and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not primarily responsible for today’s monstrous deficit.
The American Thinker’s Randall Hoven (hat tip: Washington Examiner’s Mark Tapscott) recently analyzed the claim that the war in Iraq drove the U.S. into debt, noting that the Congressional Budget Office estimates the total cost of the war in Iraq at $709 billion, which is less than the cost of the first stimulus bill, and that while the war lasted, it accounted for just 3.2% of all federal spending. Hoven provides this helpful chart that puts Iraq war spending in perspective.
Similarly, the Heritage Foundation’s Brian Riedl took on the charge that the Bush tax cuts and war spending are to blame for the accumulation of so much debt. In the Wall Street Journal, Riedl explained:
Recent CBO data indicate a 10-year baseline deficit closer to $13 trillion if Washington maintains today’s tax-and-spend policies-whereby discretionary spending grows with the economy, war spending winds down, ObamaCare is implemented, and Congress extends all the Bush tax cuts, the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) patch, and the Medicare “doc fix” (i.e., no reimbursement cuts).
Under this realistic baseline, the 10-year cost of extending the Bush tax cuts ($3.2 trillion), the Medicare drug entitlement ($1 trillion), and Iraq and Afghanistan spending ($515 billion) add up to $4.7 trillion. That’s approximately one-third of the $13 trillion in baseline deficits-far from the majority the president claims.
…and most importantly, the White House methodology is arbitrary. With Washington set to tax $33 trillion and spend $46 trillion over the next decade, how does one determine which policies “caused” the $13 trillion deficit? Mr. Obama could have just as easily singled out Social Security ($9.2 trillion over 10 years), antipoverty programs ($7 trillion), other Medicare spending ($5.4 trillion), net interest on the debt ($6.1 trillion), or nondefense discretionary spending ($7.5 trillion).
There’s no legitimate reason to single out the $4.7 trillion in tax cuts, war funding and the Medicare drug entitlement. A better methodology would focus on which programs are expanding and pushing the next decade’s deficit up.
Republicans, including the Bush Administration, certainly share the blame for putting the country on a path toward accumulating dangerous levels of debt, in particular because they increased the total size of the federal government and failed to address (and indeed added to) our entitlement program’s future liabilities. Yet it’s important that the public not be mislead into thinking that our current predicament is the result of fighting two wars and the Bush tax cuts.