Ernest Hemingway once supposedly wrote, “How did you go bankrupt? Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”
Hemingway’s observation looks increasingly spot on when it comes to the U.S. national debt, which now stands at well over $21 trillion. A trillion dollars written out is $1,000,000,000,000. That’s 12 zeroes. How did we get here? Our visualization offers a unique perspective, breaking down the debt into the deficits each U.S. President has added throughout American history.
The U.S. Treasury tracks the historical data for U.S. government debt. Overall figures from before 1950 can be found here, and more specific numbers after 1950 can be found here. We should also give proper credit for pulling these disparate sources together to The Balance. We created a 3-D visualization showing the cumulative deficits each U.S. President has added to the national debt in history, where each block represents $3 billion in today’s dollars. All the Presidents from 1789 – 1913 are lumped together at the bottom, but as you move from the bottom up, you can see the color-coded contribution from each administration. The numbers for future increases to the debt under President Trump came come directly from the White House.
There are a few caveats to keep in mind when thinking about this visualization. First off, the numbers represent inflation-adjusted dollars to make a fair comparison over several years. Presidents also don’t have total control over the deficit. For example, the deficit during their first year in office is predetermined by their predecessor’s budget. Fiscal policies are also ultimately set by Congress even if the President submits a budget blueprint for consideration. And finally, deficits tend to grow during economic downturns and times of war and shrink during more prosperous and peaceful times. That’s why some economists prefer to look at deficits as a percentage of national GDP as opposed to overall terms. After all, a “large” deficit might not actually be very big if it’s tiny compared to the size of the economy.
With all that being said, there’s a lot that we can learn from our visualization. Let’s start by looking at the overall picture, namely, deficits only started growing substantially in the last 40 years of American history. Prior to the Reagan administration, the combined cumulative U.S. debt stood at only about $750 billion, which Reagan almost tripled over 8 years. None of his successors then slowed down, with George H.W. Bush adding $1.55 trillion in a single term, followed by Clinton at $1.4 trillion, Bush at $5.85 trillion, and Obama $8.59 trillion, all over 2 terms. Trump is meanwhile projected to add a total $4.78 trillion during his first term.
So the overall trajectory of the deficit is to keep getting bigger year after year. Reagan inherited a national debt of $750 billion, and Trump added almost $779 billion in fiscal 2018 alone. Yes, there are some periods of stabilization or even contraction, but in general, Presidents from both parties keep adding more and more to the national debt.
What does all this really mean? Is the country ever going dramatically change course? It’s hard to say, but the good news is that the U.S. government can still issue debt at historically favorable rates, with the 30-year treasury bill yielding only 3.24% right now. And measured against the size of the entire economy, the annual deficit is still less than5% of GDP even if the total debt is now larger than 100% of GDP. Eventually something is going to have to change, but in the near term it looks like deficits really don’t matter. Remember what Hemingway said, “Gradually, then suddenly.”
Data: Table 1.1