We have failed to heed the lessons of economic history, with terrible consequences for our economy and country. And the most crucial of those lessons, particularly since the start of LBJ’s Great Society, is this: deficits have been caused not by a lack of income-tax increases but by recession and, most of all, by excessive government spending.
The failure to learn that lesson is again on painful display, as President Obama travels the country pointing the finger at “the rich” for not forking over enough income. By this narrative, the 36 percent income-tax rate paid by the wealthiest Americans is somehow robbing the poorest Americans, whose income-tax rate is zero percent; something one would never know from Democrats’ class rhetoric.
Because I comment on this topic so frequently, especially in the context of Reaganomics, I constantly deal with these issues from a historical perspective. Here, I would like to make it easy for everyone to see the numbers themselves and understand the root of the problem.
The answers are as easy as googling the words “historical tables deficit.” Two sources pop up: CBO historical tables and OMB historical tables. “CBO” is Congressional Budget Office; “OMB” is Office of Management and Budget. These are the official go-to sources for data on deficits, revenues, and government expenditures.
Either source will work. To keep it simple, I’ll focus on the OMB numbers. At the OMB link is Table 1.1, titled, “Summary of Receipts, Outlays, and Surpluses or Deficits: 1789-2016.” That is an official scorecard of spending by the federal government since the founding of the republic.
Looking closely at the chart is an eye-opening experience. As the first two columns show, receipts (i.e., revenues) and outlays (i.e., expenditures) moved up and down throughout our history. In 1965, however, something historically unusual, something literally deviant, began: Spending increased every single year, non-stop, consistently, without exception, into the Obama presidency, from 1965-2009.
There are few constants in the universe: gravity, the sunrise, the oceans, the moon. Add another: spending by the federal government; it rises every year.
Significantly, revenues don’t increase every year. The most dependable reason for declines in revenues is not a lack of tax increases, or high enough income-tax rates, but recessions. Since 1965, as the data shows, annual revenues declined seven separate times.
At the start of the Great Society, in 1965, revenues and expenditures were nearly equal, with expenditures only slightly higher, leaving a manageable deficit of $1.4 billion. By 2009, however, annual expenditures ($3.5 trillion) had far outpaced annual revenues ($2.1 trillion), leaving a record deficit of $1.4 trillion.
Significantly, the biggest one-year drop in revenues was from 2008-9, when they declined from $2.5 trillion to $2.1 trillion. Worse, President Obama and the Democratic Congress responded with an $800-billion “stimulus” package that didn’t stimulate. In other words, they responded in the worst way: with another $800 billion in government spending. That further mushroomed the record deficits/debt we face. The math is very simple.
Government spending, which has hampered growth rather than spark growth, caused this fiscal crisis.
It is crucial to realize that this spending addiction is a new thing in American history. Previous generations of politicians showed much more restraint. Prior to 1965, expenditures were not following an ever-upward trajectory; expenditures decreased year-to-year frequently, nearly two-dozen times between 1901 and 1965, even during the administrations of big-government liberal presidents, like Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt.
This changed in the mid-1960s, when the federal government began a serious spending problem.
How do we communicate the crisis to the wider public, beyond charts and data?
I suggest comparing the situation to a household: Your family’s annual revenue has probably not enjoyed a 40-year-plus consecutive increase. For some years, you were paid less. Perhaps you lost a job, took a pay cut, or switched jobs. Maybe your spouse was laid off, or left work to have a child. You bought a house one year, another 20 years later, spent a ton of money on your children’s college education, lost on a bad investment.
I doubt your family’s yearly revenue has been on a steady upward climb since 1965. Life obviously doesn’t work that way.
And yet, imagine if each successive year, without fail, you spent considerably more money than the previous, including money that isn’t yours. You added debt each year, creating massive debts for your family and children. You paid taxes with a credit card.
How long would this go on before you ended up with a credit downgrade or in jail? Get the picture?
If President Obama and the Democrats don’t, they should. Warren Buffet certainly should. Our fiscal crisis is due not to insufficient income taxes but uncontrolled, undisciplined spending.
To paraphrase Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign slogan, “It’s the spending, stupid.”
(© 2011 Paul Kengor)