The National Debt Road Trip

May 15, 2009

In this video, I wanted to take a close look at the historical nature of the US debt. Unfortunately, I couldn’t say all I wanted to say or it would have been three times as long and I would have bored myself to death trying to make it.

First of all, I would like to state that I am not trying to defend President Bush’s spending. I personally think Bush was spending far too much. My preference would be to reduce the debt… or at least stay put and let inflation take it’s toll on the debt. My point in this video is that it is the most absurd hypocrisy for someone to complain about how much Bush spent and then yawn when Obama is spending so much more.

A close look at the numbers reveals that this isn’t even a “We’re in a recession, we have to spend that money” issue. Obama’s high deficit plans continue long after the recession is projected to end.

Next, I want to give some pointers to the data I used and then I want to clear up some of the muddier issues in the video.

This video uses the US Treasury’s data on the national debt for the debt numbers and adjusts each year for inflation using the inflation numbers on this site.

In order to understand where the debt would be in 2016, I used the the President’s estimate in his latest budget proposal. These numbers are generally accepted to be optimistic (the Congressional Budget Office has them pegged at much higher), but I didn’t want to put the president at an unfair advantage.

Actually (and I would do this over again if I could) I calculated the future debt with regards to inflation (I assumed about 1.0% inflation per year) so that President Obama is going slower than if I just used his own numbers. I tried to bend the numbers to Obama’s advantage,  not because I agree with him, but so that there is no room for the accusation of number fudging.

In retrospect, I think it would have been more fair to assume that the President’s team had already assumed the inflation calculation and that their 2016 debt data was calculated in 2016 money and not 2008 money.

So that’s all about the calculations… now I’d like to make a note about some other decisions I made. I thought it was important to keep in mind which party held Congress. The reason is because it is actually more accurate to say

“Under President So-and-so, the debt increased by X amount”

due to the fact that the president only proposes the budget and must work with Congress in order to get a budget passed.

In 1994, we voted in a Congress that was remarkably fiscally conservative… so much so that they fought a protracted battle with President Clinton in 1995  trying desperately to get him to agree to a lower budget. The press ripped the Republican Congress (particularly Newt Gingrich) to shreds over it and they (the Republicans) ended up conceeding the matter.

On the other side of things, Reagan tried to pass smaller budgets, but the House of Representitives was heavily Democratic and added to his proposed budget until he refused to sign, leading to another government shutdown.

Long story short, the budget is a combined effort of what the president proposes and what the Congress decides, so I thought it was only fair to mention both sides of the equation once the debt really started increasing drastically. This, of course, is only more damning to Bush and Obama, since both of them have (or had) a situation in which their party is in complete control of the government.

Please… feel free to leave questions and I will answer them as quickly as I can.

41 Responses to “The National Debt Road Trip”

  1. Carlos Says:

    Excellent first entry for a blog. Here’s hoping for many more clarifying videos.

  2. This is a very good illustration of a very dangerous development.

  3. Tom Meyer Says:

    That was extremely well done. I’ve it on my blog and will be sending the youtube out.

    One question: As a understand this, you gave an average speed for each president (63mph for Bush, ~160mph for Obama) and their respective congresses. I’d be very curious to know how much of Obama’s speed rally was a result of the stimulus — however broadly understood — and how much are his plans for subsequent budgets. I’d guess the comparison is unflattering.

  4. This is a great video showing just how bad and how fast Obma is going to ruin America. Unless We the People uncover his roots and unconstitutional presidency, i.e., illegal…

  5. politicalmath Says:

    Thanks for your patience everyone… I didn’t know that the WordPress defaults were to hold comments for moderation. I’ve since changed it to open it up discussion.

  6. Hey, I got your video link off youtube, can I use it elsewhere to “get the word out” about what our leaders are doing? I can put a link back to here, but your video has your site (that is how I found you) GREAT JOB!!!1

  7. politicalmath Says:

    warrantonegirl: You’re more than welcome to use my videos in any way you like. I appreciate the proper attribution, but outside of that, go nuts!

  8. Dude, I am an Obama fan and your videos helped me put things in perspective. Great job. I am doing some things with visualizing data through Building Information Model software and would love to eventually see how you would make some similar Political Math commentaries with free software I can hook you up with.

  9. Becky Says:

    While watching the clip, which I thought was great, I couldn’t help wondering about the representation of where we came from to where we are going was intentional (right to left) or merely coincidental.

    Why couldn’t tv news come up with something like this, knowing a pictures says a thousand words?

  10. AMarks Says:

    Saw your video via David Brooks of the New York Times, and it’s well done. But I came to your site to find out exactly who you are. Can you actually give your bio or credentials in your “about me” page?

    It’s terrible, but in such a polarized political climate, I’m instinctively skeptical of facts that challenge my world view. Part of that is my problem, but partially it’s b/c what should be immutable facts are so easily manipulated by ideologues. I would love some more context. Thanks.

  11. Josh Says:

    You’re email is nonsense. You extrapolating based on presidential years. That doesn’t take into account all the mayhem one inherits. Take a look at what W. Bush inherited vs. what Obama inherited and the “mph” will look a bit different. You’re merely trying to make a point that supports your view. This type of analysis is detrimental to the American public and the world in general. Try to do make a sensible analysis that takes into account pre-existing factors and adjusts for current events. Thanks for your effort, but it was wasted.

  12. politicalmath Says:


    First, I’m using President Obama’s data, so these are his extrapolations, not mine.

    Second, it is widely believed (and even stated by the Obama administration) that the effects of the current recession should fade away by 2011. So, assuming the the Obama administration’s (extremely optimistic) predictions are accurate, the lowest deficit they project is far higher than the highest deficit that W. Bush realized.

    Are the numbers somewhat clumsy? Absolutely, and I’ve stated that in my other post on this visualization. With a visualization of this kind, it is impossible to give all the information necessary for a detailed and perfect understanding of the issue. But the broad strokes are nevertheless completely accurate.

  13. BCC Says:

    I really enjoyed your video- it made the topic accessible, and used humor effectively.

    That said, I have a few comments:

    – It might be interesting to look at debt as a pct. of GDP, rather than normalizing dollars with the CPI. I think that how much money we earn is more relevant than the price of eggs when assessing how much debt we can prudently carry.

    – Take a look at e.g. this CBO graph. The gap between the blue lines is the deficit. From 2009 to 2017, a pretty large fraction of this area is due to the 2009 spikiness- so even though you argue that the effects of the current recession are limited through 2011, the budgetary impact of that relatively brief period is large, and thus amplifies your speed calculation.

    – It may be interesting to run your speed calculations with finer resolution (e.g. yearly) since, say, 1980 or so.

    – Don’t discount the possibility of a grand bargain on the items that really matter- entitlements. So far, Obama has shown some skill in striking deals.

  14. NICK Radonic Says:

    Spending is an important milestone but its not the only measure of an economy.

    You make an obvious error (or depending on your intent, falsehood) with the ‘Clinton and a Republican Congress’ comment. Clinton raised taxes under the Democratic Congress in his first two years, slowing down the car of state. Once the Republicans were in charge nothing much changed, they were locked into a freeze under the budget agreement which made them hold steady at the modified rate until near the end of Clinton’s terms.

    But by the end of the second term the Republican Congress had pushed through the removal of the Glass-Steagall act and deregulated investments. Effectively putting the financial system on a steep hill that would need the government to jump in and catch them at the end of Bush’s term.

    • politicalmath Says:

      NICK Radonic,

      I don’t dispute any of this, but I can try to explain my intent. My intent in the video is to explain the scale of debt and how quickly it increased in certain time periods. I don’t make these kinds of omissions because I’m looking to lead people astray (BWAH HA HA! Look at how EVIL I am!) but because there is honestly only so much that I can put in a video before it starts to get really boring.

      I’m looking to communicate a core concept. These kinds of details are important. But the more of them we add, the more the narrative loses strength and we start to feel like we’re going off on rabbit trails.

      I am hopeful that anyone who is truly interested in a more comprehensive understanding of the history of the debt will come to this blog so that they can read comments like yours while we all hash out the details surrounding the core concept.

  15. Dan Says:

    You take 1 fact out of context and scare the hell out of people with it leaving them with a complete misconception. It’s like describing the pain of a needle at a doctors office. Yes it hurts, yes it’s scary and yes you feel like there is nothing good about it but we all know that if you don’t get that shot, you will be very very sick or even die. Obama’s spending is REQUIRED because our economy is not in a bad shape but CATASTROPHIC shape!!! Our economy is so bad that there is nobody out there putting money into our economy and it’s doomed to further contract laying devastation to US living standard. It is US government’s investments that is the only major spending at the moment. These investments are done by federal government anyways but now it’s just more time compressed, a lot done in short time. But that’s needed so that US businesses don’t collapse. The reason why it’s needed is because most US businesses are very healthy, but some major structural part of US economy is deeply flawed and that flawed structure is bringing down the whole house.
    US investments are what drives the economy and that leads to private enterprises investing again.
    I know that this is the country of free speech, but I’m getting tired of listening to idiots. Complete idiots rode us into this disaster. Please shut up for now and let the man fix this broken country. We simply can’t afford idiots and morons to speak out and run this country at the moment. In 10 years when this crap is fixed, we will let you morons speak again, because we will be able to afford you, but please not now! We need that doctor’s shot. Let someone who studied medicine for years save us and let cave man medicine practitioners be silent for now.

    • politicalmath Says:

      I think you’re missing the point. I take a fact and put it in context. The issue I’m dealing with is President Obama’s debt increases compared to President Bush’s debt increases.

      I’m a little surprised by your insistence that we need to spend this money or the economy will become a disaster. In that line of reasoning, I would like to posit a question:

      Do you think Bush spent too much? If he did, why did the economy go downhill? Is it because he spent it on different things? If so, can you explain to me the difference between Obama’s spending and Bush’s spending?

      And I don’t mean some sort of “Bush bad, Obama good” difference. I mean “Obama is spending this money on this thing over here and that is going to make an immediate difference.”

      I think a great example is education. A whole lot of the stimulus money is going towards education. But how is that going to solve our immediate economic crisis? Do we have a plan in which all 5th graders get Macs instead of PCs and within 12 months we have a hundred multi-million dollar start-ups being run by 6th graders?

      I’d love to have this conversation with you, but I’m going to respectfully ask that you a) don’t call anyone here a moron… if you think they’re wrong, explain why carefully and in detail b) answer the questions you are asked and respond with your own questions

      • Josh Says:

        Bush spent too much on the wrong things. Two examples are the war in Iraq – which is still having to be paid during the Obama administration – and the tax cuts for the upper class.

        The stimulus bill was good spending. An important example is the increase in food stamps, which is one of the biggest ‘bang for the buck’ way for the government to stimulate the economy.

        (Source: )

        Do you agree that the stimulus bill was good spending? Why not? Do you have a source for this belief?

        Similarly, deficit spending when things are good (as Reagan, Bush 1 and Bush 2 did) is bad because, when thing are not good (as they are now) the government is less able to leverage its power to help.

        As an aside, we -know- that government spending can raise the economy out of a recession/depression. We have historical data (FDR and the Great Depression) that prove this. Similarly, we know that doing nothing will make the situation worse (Hoover.)

  16. Steve Johnson Says:

    I appreciate the simplicity you shot for, and the clarity it provides in presenting this one aspect of the national debt, but there are a few issues. Here are a few comments for possible future videos that could help clarify some points that others raised in comments above.

    1. Debt is traditionally measured in the metric of % of GDP. This is for good reason. It provides a lot more information on how much debt a country can carry, how quickly that debt could be paid off if necessary, etc. In general, it’s just more useful than an inflation adjusted total. Having a companion video that explores the trends of debt as a % of GDP would make your analysis more even-handed in my opinion.

    2. A video that includes information on tax levels at the time of each presidency. How fast would we be going right now if tax levels were the same as they were during World War 2? If you run the numbers, it quickly becomes clear that we would actually be paying off the debt right now, even at Obama’s proposed levels of spending, if FDR-level taxes were in place. In this sense, it was “easier” for earlier presidents to maintain a lower speed. Even Reagan’s presidency had higher tax rates than we have today. I’m obviously not arguing that going back to these levels would be a GOOD thing, it would only stifle growth and drive away investment in a globalized economy. But still, it is important information when considering the whole, and understanding just how much Roosevelt REALLY spent during the depression and WW2, compared to our expenditures today.

    • politicalmath Says:


      In answer to part 2:

      I was actually fascinated to find that in 1933, the government collected about 4% of the GDP in revenue. That spiked up to a shade over 20% at the height of WWII. (Back then, the government financed a big chunk of its war debt through the purchase of war bonds.)

      What is interesting is that it never really went back down. It dipped below 15% by 1950, but then hung around 16%-19% until the late 90’s, when it crept back up to a shade over 20% again. Under Bush, we saw it dip back down, but President Obama has promised to pull the overall Revenue-to-GPD percentage to 19%.

      You would actually be surprised at how much Roosevelt didn’t spend (or at least didn’t grow the debt) during the Depression. Debt-to-GDP just kind of hung out at 40% through the whole Depression and didn’t spike until WWII kicked in.

  17. politicalmath Says:


    Certainly there is bad spending and good spending. You may classify the Iraq war as “bad spending”, although I think that ultimately depends on things that are much bigger than money. That’s not a conversation I really want to have because it just makes everyone angry and irrational.

    Ultimately, I think that the onus of proving that the stimulus spending is “good spending” falls on those who want to spend it. As for myself, I’ve not heard many good examples. The stimulus is made mostly of tax cuts (which are apparently evil when Bush wants them and awesome when Obama wants them), tons of education spending, and a bunch of “state fiscal relief” (including Medicaid). Here’s a great visualization if you’d like to check it out.

    Some things make good horse sense in a recession, like the extended unemployment benefits and the food stamps. Other things, like the education benefits, would take so long to kick in that the recession will likely be over by the time they start making an impact. That kind of spending is better off in the normal budget.

    But I digress.

    I think it is important to note that our debt has interest payments. This year, those interest payments were about twice what we spent on the Iraq war for the year. By 2016, it will be almost as much as passing a new stimulus bill every single year. I would be very entertained to see you argue that $500+ billion in interest every year is “good spending”.

  18. BCC Says:

    Tax cuts: The fraction of the stimulus that was tax cuts was higher than the admin. desired in order to win some Senate votes. Further, the cuts were *middle class* tax cuts, which are a different flavor than tax cuts for the rich. So, it’s entirely defensible to feel differently about Bush’s tax cuts than Obama’s.

    I think the jury is still out if the stimulus spending is “good spending.” With an n=1 universe, I’m sure that we can argue about whether such spending is/has been effective for some time.

    • politicalmath Says:


      Could you please point to a page that deals with the specifics of both the Bush and the Obama tax cuts?

      The reason I ask is because I’ve found that very often people simply take for granted many concepts and one of the concepts I’ve yet to see backed up is:

      Bush tax cuts = Rich

      Obama tax cuts = Middle Class

      My understanding was that the Bush tax cuts meant a tax cut across the board and actually increased the number of people who paid no taxes at all from 30 million to 40 million.

      I could be wrong. You seem to really know without a doubt, so I assume you got that information from a document that gives specific and verifiable details on the matter. I would appreciate it if you could pass that along to me.

  19. politicalmath Says:


    The reason I asked for specific details about both tax cuts is because I hear people say things like “Bush’s tax cuts not only disproportionately targeted the upper class”, but they don’t extrapolate on what that means.

    For example, if the bottom two quintiles have an effective income tax rate of zero (which they do according to the CBO), doesn’t that mean that the top quintile will get a disproportionate tax break simply because they pay a disproportionate amount of taxes?

    Example: In 2004, the bottom quintile paid an effective tax rate of 4.5% and the top 1% paid an effective tax rate of 31.3%. In 2005, the bottom quintile paid an effective tax rate of 3.94% while the top 1% paid an effective tax rate of 30.8%.

    The bottom quintile saw a 12.5% tax cut. The top 1% saw a 1.6% tax cut. This would mean that you’re simply wrong.

    However… if you’re looking at raw numbers instead of tax rates, the average bottom quintile individual saved $89 based on the tax cuts and the average top 1% earning individual saved almost $7800.

    So… (and I’m sorry it took so many words to get around to my real question)… are you saying that the rich were “disproportionately targeted” because they got more back in raw dollars? Or because they got a higher percentage cut?

    Let me know when you get a chance. (And sorry it took so long for me to approve your comment… I’ll try to change the wordpress default settings to allow more than one link per comment)

  20. […] National Debt Road Trip PM has generated this illuminating post.  Not so impressive to either Bush or Obama supporters, the […]

  21. BCC Says:

    Here are a couple datasets that might make for an objective comparison of tax cuts. They come from the same source, so I presume (though I haven’t checked rigorously) that they follow the same methodology. I had never heard of the CTJ before looking for this data, so I don’t vouch for the accuracy of this data.

    Structure of Obama tax cuts:

    Bush tax cuts:

    A quick glance at the “Shares of the total tax cuts” columns indicates that the Bush tax cuts concentrated about 65% of the total value of the cuts among the top 20% income group. The top 1% accrued 35+% of the total.

    The Obama tax cuts concentrate about 25% of the value in the top 20%. The top 1% garnered 0%.

    Assuming that the datasets are comparable, I think it’s pretty clear which set of tax cuts favored the rich.

    And when discussing taxes, I think it would be constructive to not ignore the fact that those that may not pay Federal income taxes do pay payroll tax.

  22. BBoing Says:

    My guess is the next video would be Social Security and/or Medicare spending. Talk about unfathomable!

  23. Andrew Says:

    Really, incredibly well done. Thanks for running the numbers. I am beginning to believe the republic is done, but am gratified that some of us are still paying attention and trying to hit the brakes, so to speak.

  24. […] by KingShamus on July 26, 2009 From the dude that brought you the debt road trip, here’s Political Math’s latest batch of […]

  25. Susan Says:

    Did this guy borrow from you? Did you borrow from him? Or is this you?

    • politicalmath Says:

      Interesting… I’ve never seen that before (although it definitely came out before my video did).

      And I thought I was hyper.

  26. larry Says:

    I just did some quick math I wanted an opinion on. The increase from 5 mph to 40 mph for the great depression/world war 2 is an 800% increase. The increase from 64 mph to 174 mph is approx 272% increase for the recession we are currently in. Does this seem accurate?

    Showing my work
    5mph * x = 40 mph
    x = 40/5
    x = 8
    8 * 100 = 800%

    64 * x = 174
    x = 174/64
    x = 2.71875
    2.72 * 100 = 272%

  27. Efialtis Says:

    I saw something that I was concerned about…
    Bush only had a Republican Congress for PART of his presidency, the rest of his presidency he had a Democrat Congress…

    Is there a difference in spending between the two?
    R + R = $$
    R + D = ??

  28. […] from TR Created by Political Math Related Posts:P.J. O’Rourke on our Financial ProblemsCan’t be Former Senator Soon […]

  29. Bflobaz Says:

    I’ve a few things to say about the video…but need to make it clear I hold BOTH parties AND the American Public responsible. We’re like kids wanting Mommy and Daddy to do everything for us and we’re not obligated to anything in-exchange.

    I’m a registered Democrat (only because they have more primary contests and that’s where the real power is to be found to toss a rascal out). I dislike labels, but under present jargon, I’m probably a Progressive.

    Having said all that, even as I retrace history over the last several generations, I know I’m not being as thorough and certainly not citing facts and figures as if this were a paper due in College. You’ll have to accept my apology; but I couldn’t let some of the incorrect assumptions and lack of perspective from the person or group responsible for the video go unanswered — with “perspective” and “accuracy”.

    The fact is we’re spending too much and we’ve been doing so for generations. I forget; but was the last balanced Federal Budget under Nixon? I don’t recall. Regardless, of course we can’t keep borrowing and borrowing and spending and spending. But to blame Obama and the Democrats, given what they inherited, isn’t telling the entire story. Beyond labels, let’s assign the term “liberal” or “progressive” or “conservative” and we’ve a different picture.

    Under Ronald Reagan, a “conservative” majority (although he was often dealing with a Democratic Congress) bought his “Supply-Side Economics — hook, line and SUCKER” — telling the Big Lie until it was sold. David Stockman, his first Budget Director wrote a book telling how they didn’t even believe “supply side” worked — and yet, we’re still prisoners of it a generation after the fact.

    Like in my old home county, they spent more than they taxed and/or didn’t reduce expenses. That was irresponsible. I’m not against the original Republican Party (that of Lincoln) whose philosophy was that “a person ought to be able to retain the fruits of their labor”. But that isn’t the Conservative mantra in action.

    Rather, we’ve observed a return to the Gilded Age; the disparity of income to effort is as bad as or worse than at any time since President Teddy Roosevelt recognized that one-percent controlling it all and 99% struggling was tantamount to awaiting social anarchy. We’re at the abyss now; but the present Conservative mantra continues to hold to supply side economics (and sadly, to Progressives, Obama and the Democrats caved and didn’t fight back with any degree of effort). Rather, the Obama cabinet has some of the same folks whose efforts contributed to the collapsed economy inherited by Obama and a Democratic Congress.

    The economy required an infusion of cash and while it has clearly added to the deficit, it also prevented a total collapse — which I’m not sure isn’t yet to happen given that not sufficient reform has occurred in the financial sector.

    Another very important point: “The Republicans under Bush kept the Iraq and Afghanistan war efforts “off the books” — thus its enormous financial costs didn’t count on the Federal Budget. Oh, it was there…but invisible at first glance and thus, easy enough to now say Obama has added more to the deficit than at any time in history. What he and the Democrats did was to bring the costs of those wars onto the Budget as “funded mandates” rather than way Bush managed the accounting.

    What do we do about a deficit about to explode — the day the Chinese decide not to lend us any more cash? We need to return to the tax rates under Presidents such as Eisenhower or Kennedy-Johnson or Nixon or Carter and move away from the false God of “Supply-Side”. Taxing the upper 1% — basically those responsible for tanking the economy and recovering what was stolen from the rest of us — doesn’t seem un-American — rather responsible book-keeping.

  30. Steve Says:

    I am wondering how much of obamas spending can be broken out and attributed to bush? You know how much is going to wars? how much is going into Medicare part D funding? Etc. break out all of the stuff he inherited and has to fund then you can give a more accurate picture of what he is doing. But in my opinion this is a pure bashing of Obama for political purposes.

  31. Theodore Dent Says:

    Eliminate Medicare, Part D, Medicare Advantage, the cost of two wars, the destruction of the regulations on Wall Street and the resultant loss of tax revenues, etc., and anyone can see that blaming President Obama for the sinking of the ship of state is specious and scurrilous.

    Nothing happens in isolation. Therefore assigning “blame” is difficult, even though it makes one’s self-righteousness feel excellent.

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