Who Increased The Debt?

Additional Resources

Gross National Debt as % GDP (zfacts.com)

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11 Responses to “Who Increased The Debt?”
  1. gregoryzaller says:

    I don’t understand this bar chart, particularly in light of the additional resource given: zfacts.com. On that site it shows the greatest increase in the national debt during Obama’s term. (a 16% increase in the trend?) But Clinton decreased the debt. This just doens’t add up to me.

  2. Anna Haynes says:

    Good pt Greg. From following the “Additional Resources” link, it looks like there is indeed a sign problem, & that Clinton’s should be negative.
    (on a cursory view)

    Note, this is debt as % of GDP, which is (AFAIK) the meaningful metric; if you use a less meaningful metric (showing it as absolute debt in non-inflation-adjusted dollars) it probably looks different.

  3. gregoryzaller says:

    Thank you Anna, From this link http://presidentialdebt.org/
    I can sort of make sense out of what the mistake is. Clinton in 8 years did raise the debt about 35% including a last year of -2%. The debt raised about this much in the 3 years of Obama. Not 16%.

    Don, you claim these figures came from the treasury department but who drew the graph? If it was accurate and used the same time periods, Obama would be up higher than Bush. In any case, I agree with Krugman and think he should have raised it more with a better stimulus to have gotten the result we want.

  4. gregoryzaller says:

    Now I see that the Obama debt increase on the chart is only for two years comparing with Bush for eight. Still the number should have been 26%.

    Numbers, when used correctly, can be very helpful.

  5. Don Pelton says:

    Thanks Greg and Anna for noticing the apparent contradiction in the two graphs.

    The contradiction would be real rather than apparent if the vertical axes of the two graphs were using identical units, but in fact they are not.

    The vertical axis on the graph I reprinted above denotes “percent increase in public debt,” whereas the vertical axis on the zFacts graph denotes “Gross National Debt as % of GDP.”

    Notice on the zFacts graph that, logically, it is quite possible (as in the case of Clinton) for the debt to increase on his watch, but for the debt-as-a-percentage-of-GDP to decrease over the same period (1993-2001). This is due to the fact that GDP grew at a faster rate than debt grew in that period. So, as I see it, there is no arithmetic sign problem at all in the data underlying these graphs, nor in the graphical representation of the data.

    Here’s the calculation for Clinton:

    Explanation for 37% increase in debt during Clinton years (in the graph I reprinted above)
    1993 $4,188 billion debt
    2001 $5,728 billion debt
    (($5,728 – $4,188) = 1540)/4188 = 0.36771 x 100 = 37%

    Explanation for drop in debt as a percentage of GDP on zFacts graph in Clinton years
    1993 ($4,188 billion debt / $6,667.4 bilion GDP = 0.6281) x100 = 63%
    2001 ($5,728 billion debt / $10,286.2 billion GDP = 0.55686) x 100 = 56%

    (Data source for the above calculations = http://www.treasurydirect.gov/govt/reports/pd/mspd/mspd.htm)

    Your question about the source of the graph I published above is entirely reasonable, since it is spare and not well documented.

    In fact, as Snopes points out, the graph was originally posted to the Flickr account of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

    Snopes also makes the observation that — while the graph is generally accurate — it is not all that useful.

    That’s one reason why I posted a pointer to the zFacts graph (as another way to look at a similar issue).

    As far as the usual complaint about Obama being the biggest spender of all time, yada yada yada, these data should also make it obvious that he has inherited a scale of indebtedness much vaster than any that existed before him, thanks to the extravagant Debtors-in-Chief who preceded him.

  6. depelton says:

    The best source of comparative data on presidential performance can be found in the book, “Presimetrics: What the Facts Tell Us About How the Presidents Measure Up On the Issues We Care About,” by Mike Kimel and Michael E. Kanell. Kimel and Kanell develop a rigorous methodology for normalizing comparisons of administrations of varying length.

    Ironically, I posted this same graph over a year ago and we had a spirited discussion about it also at that time, here:


  7. gregoryzaller says:

    I still don’t see where the 16% debt increase came from for two years three months of the Obama period. . I believe the link I gave above would put it at 31% approximately for the period given.

    Interesting that the new, coming next year, common core standards for math are designed to encourage the ability to detect misrepresentations like this is.

    1 Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
    2 Reason abstractly and quantitatively
    3 Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
    4 Model with mathematics.
    5 Use appropriate tools strategically.
    6 Attend to precision.
    7 Look for and make use of structure
    8 Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning

  8. depelton says:

    Snopes , using http://www.treasurydirect.gov/govt/reports/pd/mspd/mspd.htm, gets yet a third value:

    “Barak Obama:
    Took office 20 January 2009. Total debt: $10,627 billion.
    Total debt (as of the end of April 2011): $14,288 billion
    Percent change in total debt: +34%”

    Verifying Snopes: ((14,288 – 10,627 = 3661)/10627 = 0.344 = 0.34) x 100 = 34%

    These numbers look roughly consistent with the data in your source, Greg.

    So, the graph above with respect to Obama looks low all right.

    Greg, I notice that — according to your source (http://presidentialdebt.org/ ), Obama’s “Change during presidency” = 41.4% (as of 12/31/2011) … still significantly below all the GOPers in the graph.

  9. gregoryzaller says:

    But Don, that’s just for a little over two years for Obama’s 30 something percent. You would have to multiply that number by about 3.5 times to compare it with Bush’s eight years.

    Let me say again, that I trust Krugman, and he says that the stimulus was too low. That means I think that Obama did not run up the debt enough.

  10. depelton says:


    I share you confidence in Krugman, except possibly when it comes to Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), about which he seems to have a blind spot..

    In any case, I agree with you and the widespread expert consensus that the stimulus was too small.

    See also this interesting article on the danger of running a budget surplus:

    The Untold Story Of How Clinton’s Budget Destroyed The American Economy

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