The drivers of our debt

Updated
The drivers of our debt
The drivers of our debt
TPM Media

About a year ago, Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) hosted a town-hall meeting with some constituents, one of whom said Bush-era policies are largely responsible for the current budget deficit. The Republican didn’t take the news well.

“This year’s deficit is due to George Bush? That’s insanity!” Grimm said. He added, “That’s insane.”

I can appreciate why Grimm’s pushback might resonate with some folks. George W. Bush left office more than three years ago, so it may seem as if today’s problems no longer have anything to do with him. Why blame Bush for Obama-era deficits? Grimm, who routinely struggles to understand the basics of current events, was incredulous, and I suspect plenty of Republicans agree.

But reality isn’t “insane,” and the facts are incontrovertible. Sahil Kapur published this chart this morning.

If the image looks familiar, it’s because the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities published something very similar a while back (the wonks call it the “parfait chart”).

This is important for a couple of reasons. First, there’s the simple matter of basic accountability – though some on the right prefer to think it’s “insane” to hold Bush-era policies responsible for current problems, the truth is, sweeping policy agendas carry lasting consequences. In this case, Bush not only squandered a massive surplus, added $5 trillion to the debt, and left a $1.3 trillion deficit for Obama to deal with, he also approved policies that we’re still struggling to pay for, years after his departure.

That’s not opinion or spin; it’s fact. When Republicans in 2012 cast blame for this year’s budget shortfall, they’re generally condemning the wrong president.

Second, understanding what actually drives our debt is key to understanding how to address the debt. For GOP policymakers and their presidential nominee, the answer is increasing defense spending, more tax cuts, and slashing investments in health care, education, and combating poverty.

But the chart tells a very different kind of story: Bush-era tax breaks represent the biggest chunk of the deficits projected in the coming years. If there’s a “debt crisis” – there isn’t, but for the sake of conversation, let’s say it’s possible – common sense suggests policymakers would start with the single biggest driver of the debt.

For the right, President Obama’s policies are “bankrupting” the country. For those who care about facts, it’s not Obama’s agenda that’s causing the budget shortfall.

Debt and Budget

The drivers of our debt

Updated