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Joe Scarborough, co-host of the MSNBC show Morning Joe, penned a reflective column for the Washington Post on Sept. 11, 2018, headlined, "Trump is harming the dream of America more than any foreign adversary ever could."
Here’s a portion of the column:
"Seventeen years (after the 9/11 attacks), endless wars abroad and reckless policies at home have produced annual deficits approaching $1 trillion. President Trump’s Republican Party will create more debt in one year than was generated in the first 200 years of America’s existence. And while the United States has been mired in endless wars and bloody occupations over the past 17 years, China has used that same period to aggressively develop economic partnerships across Asia, Europe, Latin America and Africa. Perhaps that is one reason China will soon overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy."
It's a common refrain, regardless of who's in the White House. In February 2016, we rated Mostly True a statement by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush that "Barack Obama will somehow manage to add more than $8 trillion to the national debt, which is more debt than the 43 presidents who held office before him compiled together."
So is it really true that "President Trump’s Republican Party will create more debt in one year than was generated in the first 200 years of America’s existence"?
A few preliminaries. First, there are two common measures for debt. One, called public debt, tallies up the debt held by the public, while gross federal debt is a larger figure that combines publicly held debt plus debt held by the government itself, such as in the Social Security or Medicare trust funds. Both figures are considered legitimate, and since Scarborough didn’t specify which one she was referring to, we’ll run the numbers for both categories of debt.
Because debt is cumulative (minus any intervening surpluses) the debt level at the end of a given time period is the cumulative debt up to that point -- you don’t have to add the yearly figures for debt to get the figure Scarborough is referencing.
The first question to answer is, when do you start counting to calculate debt for "the first 200 years of America’s existence"? (An NBC spokesman didn’t respond to an inquiry.)
Probably the most obvious way to do it is to look at the cumulative debt between 1776, the date of the Declaration of Independence, and 1976, the national bicentennial year.
At the end of 1976, the public debt was $477.4 billion, and the gross federal debt was just under $629 billion.
So how does that compare to Trump’s record?
The amount of public debt added in 2017 -- a year when Trump was president for all but 20 days and when the Republicans were in control of Congress -- was $497.8 billion, while the amount of gross federal debt added was $666.3 billion.
Whichever variety of debt you use, the amount of debt added under Republican control in 2017 was greater than the accumulated debt by the end of 1976, making Scarborough’s statement correct. (Economists do not typically adjust debt figures for inflation; the figures cited above are nominal dollars.)
Meanwhile, projections by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office suggest that the size of the debt under Trump will only grow from what it was in 2017. In 2018, 2019 and 2020, the debt is projected to increase by more than $1 trillion in each year.
Some might suggest starting the clock in 1788 -- when the Constitution was ratified -- and stopping it in 1988, rather than starting with pre-Revolutionary War independence. In that scenario, the accumulated public debt over 200 years would be $2.1 trillion and the accumulated general debt would be $2.6 trillion. That would make Scarborough’s calculation incorrect.
However, "I think most people would say America began its existence in 1776," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Beyond the starting date, we see a few caveats.
First, Scarborough lays the blame entirely at the Republicans’ feet. However, decisions made by Democrats or by both parties long before Trump’s tenure have shaped how much was added to the debt in 2017.
Net interest on the debt accounted for 6.6 percent of federal spending in 2017, and mandatory spending -- outlays that are essentially on autopilot, including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- accounted for an additional 63.3 percent of federal spending. So the broad outlines of today’s spending picture were not solely set by today’s Republican congressional majorities and Republican president.
Second, the inevitable grind of inflation and population growth puts an upward pressure on the scale of the debt. Unless and until the United States reverses course and starts paying down the debt, every new president will preside over ever-larger amounts of debt.
A better way to look at debt is by measuring debt as a percentage of gross domestic product, Ellis said. That’s because a more economically productive country can more easily carry a big debt load.
And how do those figures look? Here’s a chart.
As the chart shows, the current level of debt as a percentage of GDP is not unprecedented (it was higher around World War II) and its growth has eased recently since a spike after the Great Recession. The recession both fed higher spending on the national safety net and weakened the denominator, which is gross domestic product.
The chart does show that, when looking at a percentage of GDP, Scarborough is correct in his comparison. Debt as a percentage of GDP in 2017 was far higher (almost 77 percent) than it was in 1976 (about 27 percent).
Scarborough said, "President Trump’s Republican Party will create more debt in one year than was generated in the first 200 years of America’s existence."
If you use the period 1776 to 1976, Scarborough is correct. However, it’s worth noting that much of today’s debt picture owes something to guidelines for mandatory spending and net interest for past debts, both of which were shaped by both parties.
We rate the statement Mostly True.
Joe Scarborough, "Trump is harming the dream of America more than any foreign adversary ever could," Sept. 11, 2018
Office of Management and Budget, "Table 7.1—Federal Debt at the End of Year: 1940–2023," accessed Sept. 11, 2018
Office of Management and Budget, "Table 3.1—Outlays by Superfunction and Function: 1940–2023 ," accessed Sept. 11, 2018
Office of Management and Budget, "Table 8.3—Percentage Distribution of Outlays by Budget Enforcement Act Category: 1962–2023," accessed Sept. 11, 2018
Congressional Budget Office, "The 2018 Long-Term Budget Outlook," June 2018
Email interview with Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, Sept. 11, 2018
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