Yesterday, The Atlantic’s James Fallows offered up a New York Times chart as the ur-graphic of all debt ceiling debates, purporting to show that the deficit problem belongs to George Bush and not Barack Obama. Since then, it has made the rounds of the blogosphere and e-mail in an attempt to pin the lack of resolution to the debt-ceiling crisis on the GOP, an argument that is ultimately incoherent:
There are plenty of issues with this chart, but let’s start with the notion that the “Bush tax cuts” cost the static-analysis price listed here. Absent those tax cuts, we would not have had the recovery from 2003-7, which generated a rather hefty increase in federal revenues; we’ll return to that in a moment. The actual revenue listed in this chart was what static analysis of the recovery would have brought into federal coffers, which is one of the main problems with static analysis. It also conflates tax cuts with federal spending, which only makes sense if one starts from the premise that the people owe their government all of their income less any that the government arbitrarily allows them to keep.
The chart then tries to claim that Obama’s spending increases over the next 8 years (projected) will amount to just $1.44 trillion — less than the annual deficit these days. Oddly, it doesn’t mention that the last Republican annual budget passed in Congress (FY2007) only had a $160 billion deficit, which tends to interfere with the narrative Fallows and the Times wants to build here.
So who has been the big spender over the last decade? Let’s take a look at charts that show actual federal outlays in time sequence, from Heritage. I’ve used this one before, which shows inflation-adjusted spending and revenue over the last 50 years:
Note the slope of the increase from 2001-6, when Republicans controlled Congress and the White House. The rate of spending increases goes up significantly in that period, which is one reason that fiscal conservatives largely abandoned the GOP in the 2006 midterm elections, allowing Democrats to take control again after 12 years. However, look at the revenue from 2003 to 2007; the Bush tax cuts very obviously didn’t cut into Treasury revenue, but sparked economic growth that restored it to its highest level ever.
Now look at what happens after Democrats take control of Congress. For the FY2008 budget, federal spending increased at a rate higher than that of the GOP budgets from FY2002-2007. For FY2009, Democrats ended up playing keep-away from George Bush and passed continuing resolutions until Barack Obama took office and signed the omibus bill that increased spending at a mindblowing rate.
Some of this can be attributed to expansion of entitlement spending for an aging America, to be sure. However, Democratic Congresses responded to that problem by boosting discretionary spending, both before and after Obama took office:
Again, the Republican Congresses under Bush certainly share blame here for their own rate of increase, but the Democrats took that increase and amped it up even further while entitlement spending climbed into the stratosphere. The FY2011 budget compromise didn’t reverse that trend, either. Clearly, Democrats have spent the last four years expanding federal spending, regulation, and deficits, while the New York Times and The Atlantic look for someone else to blame for the results.
Update: A few more points about the NYT chart come to mind. The war costs used by the Times appears to contain mainly costs that would have been incurred by the Department of Defense whether or not we went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. It also fails to note the bipartisan nature of the war in Afghanistan — and somehow fails to include the costs of both wars under Obama for the first two years. Similarly, the chart correctly notes the first tranche of TARP under Bush, but skips the second tranche under Obama. Also, the category of “2008 Stimulus and Other Changes” seems pretty suspect, since the 2008 stimulus was scored at $150 billion, or less than one-fifth of the $773 billion the Times claims.