Who’s to blame for the National Debt?

February 20, 2009 2:02 pm Published by 6 Comments

As a Graphic Designer by trade, an artist in general, and a scatterbrain in particular, I like to see data in graphs and charts. To me, it’s just much more useful to see information graphically represented (see my previous post for a good example) than to examine tables of raw data. So when I see a good chart, it makes a big impression on me.

This chart (or others like it) isn’t exactly new. It’s been floating around the net for a few years, and it clearly shows that the National Debt increases at a significantly greater rate when we have a Republican president. I’ve seen this chart pop up on Digg and in message board comments all over the place. There are apparently a lot of people who have it bookmarked and are ready to post a link to it at the first sign of praise of Republican fiscal policy or criticism of Democrat fiscal policy.

However, one of the first criticisms this chart gets is always something along the lines of “the President doesn’t really have much control over the economy” or that it’s really a problem caused in the Senate, since they’re the ones who come up with the bills. The inevitable response to that is “yes, but the President can veto those bills”. Who’s really to blame?

The New Chart

Last night, I finally decided to research the history of the Senate, and see how party control correlates with National Debt increases. Here’s what I came up with:


First, I had to check to see if the debt data is accurate. I got my data from TreasuryDirect.gov, which is run by the US Department of the Treasury’s Bureau of the Public Debt. The original chart matches up exactly to what I found on that site, though I’m not sure how they got their numbers. I just subtracted one year’s amount from the previous year’s to find the yearly change. I colored in the graph with the corresponding presidential terms, red for Republican and blue for Democrat. (This is all pretty obvious, but I’m going for transparency here.)

Next, I went to Senate.gov and found this handy information detailing party division in the senate since 1789. Pretty cool. I charted out the information in bars, colorizing them based on which party had more members in the Senate (ignoring other parties) and changing the bar’s opacities based on how much control each party had. In the time period shown, neither party ever had more than 23 more members than the other (1977-1979).

So, does the party controlling the Senate correlate with greater rates of increase in the National Debt? Eh…not really. The people who claim that the Senate is really responsible are probably mistaken. But here’s where we begin to see the problems with looking at data in this way.

Problems with Looking at Data in this Way

The most obvious issue with this type of chart is that it’s easy to forget that this is a display of the amount of change in debt from year to year, not the actual amount of debt itself. Every single president on this chart is associated with an increase in debt. We haven’t had a decrease in the National Debt since 1957. It’s going up and up, and at most we can say that Republican presidents cause our debt to increase faster than Democratic presidents. But even that is a great stretch, because this chart is only showing correlation, not what’s behind the numbers. And, as we all (should) know: correlation does not equal causation.


Another big problem is that this chart only goes back to 1976. Does the trend of greater increases with Republicans continue as you go further back? For the most part yes, until you get to Eisenhower, under whom the National Debt decreased in both 1956 and 1957. However, before 1965, debt numbers are NOTHING compared to what they are now. (See sidebar.)

Going back that far, you’d have a difficult time convincing me that the two parties then are the same as they are now. Both parties have adjusted and adapted their policies (fiscal and otherwise) based on what else has happened in the world, changes in ideology, trying things that didn’t work, and so on. (See Reaganomics.)

The Real Cause

So, what’s really causing the big jumps when Republicans are in power? I can only see three possibilities, although there may be others:

  1. Republican presidents cause more debt than Democratic presidents. Hey, it’s possible. Republican fiscal policy may cause Republican presidents to support bills and programs that cause more debt, and oppose those that don’t.
  2. It’s just a coincidence. There are so many different things causing our National Debt, and these may just be natural ebbs and flows.
  3. Delayed effect of economic changes. Even after a bill is passed, it takes a while for its affects to be noticeable. Maybe the downturn during Clinton’s reign is the result of Reagan and Bush1’s policies, and the huge spike during Bush2’s reign was caused by Clinton.

I don’t know which one it is, or even if it is one of these three things. In fact, I suspect that the problem is a mixture of all three, as insane as that may sound. As I said at the beginning of this post, I’m a graphic designer, not an economist. I took an Economics 101 type class last year as a requirement for my program, but it was very basic.

However, even if I was an economist, I still don’t think I’d be able to say for sure. Look at our current economic problems, and you’ll see just how many well-educated and well-informed professional economists are out there contradicting each other.

I wish I could say something conclusive to end this post, but I can’t think of anything.

Wherein I solicit validation from strangers:

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This post was written by Bevans

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