# The National Debt by Presidency

This post is not particularly original or profound. I just found myself thinking of the debt, and decided to check the data. OMB Table 7.1 provides data on the debt. The gross debt in 2005 was 7.9 trillion, give or take some change. It’s a really big number that means nothing to a simple guy like me. I can’t envision a trillion, much less 7.9 of them.

So I divided through per person. The debt per capita was \$23,581. OK. I can picture that. But has it been rising or falling, and how has each President done? For that, one has to adjust by inflation to know for certain.

Below are the geometric means of the percentage yearly changes in real gross debt per capita, and in real debt held by the public per capita, going back a few presidencies:

Ike_____-2.11%___-2.47%
JFK____-1.26%___-1.18%
LBJ____-0.14%___-0.97%
Nixon__-1.51%___-3.10%
Ford____0.73%____2.64%
Carter___1.27%____3.13%
Reagan__7.12%____7.40%
GHW___6.84%____4.93%
Clinton__1.31%___-1.31%
GW_____2.57%___0.36%

(And yes, for Clinton the figures are indeed, coincidentally, symmetric.)

Looking at things a different way…. The table below shows the yearly change in the gross debt as a percentage of GDP and debt held by the public as a percentage of GDP:

Ike_____-2.28___-1.99
JFK____-1.43___-1.10
LBJ____-1.86___-1.80
Nixon__-1.48____-1.58
Ford____1.30____1.80
Carter__-0.73___-0.35
Reagan__2.33____1.86
GHW___3.05____1.78
Clinton_-0.76___-1.63
GW____1.26____0.46

That’s 10 Presidents, of whom only 4 – Ford, Reagan, GHW, and GW – managed to increase the debt no matter which way you look at it. Now, perhaps something was accomplished with all this debt…. Growth, perhaps? Well, yes! The geometric mean of the yearly growth rate in real GDP per capita during the Ford, Reagan, GHW and GW presidencies was a staggering 1.64%. Meanwhile, the other presidents delivered increases in real GDP per capita of a mere 2.32% a year. Someone call the Club for Growth and the NRO – if they have managed to conclude that tax cuts are the way to get higher growth, the evidence favoring a bazillion dollar debt is just as strong. I would say they should be bragging about GW’s debt, not trying to distant themselves from it.

Data
Debt: OMB Table 7.1
Population: Through 1961, used Q3 data from BEA NIPA Table 7.1 and for 1962 onward, used OMB Table 17.5
CPI: Used average from September of previous year to August from the BLS
Real GDP per capita: BEA NIPA Table 7.1

Update: Corrected a typo on the growth rate in real GDP in non-Ford, Reagan, GHW and GW years.