The GOP v. Democrats, Round 1: The National Debt

Believe it or not, there was a time in the not-too-distant past when moderates walked the halls of Congress and the policies of the the two parties overlapped—which meant that the passage of legislation was not only possible, it was commonplace. Then the Civil Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, and that was the tipping point. Conservative Southern Democrats began to cross the aisle, the Southern Democrats who didn’t were beaten, and once-fertile legislative ground was displaced by a yawning, barren gap.  (See Notes below.)

It now appears that representatives from the two parties can barely speak to each other, and the passage of an actual bill is a media-worthy event. On the other side of the coin, to borrow a phrase, it’s easier to tell the parties apart, or rather it’s easier for the two parties to distinguish themselves in the minds of voters.

In particular, we’re often told that Republican administrations are better at stimulating the economy and cutting the deficit. If punditry and campaign rhetoric are indicators, the Democrats appear to have turned the cheek on both accounts, but they claim they’re better job creators. Who are voters to believe? Are the Republican better at stimulating the economy (see “Trickle Down: The Lost Alternative”) and cutting the deficit, and are the Democrats better “job creators,” or not?

The Other Side of Obvious is like a foster home for skeptics; we’re not inclined to believe anything we’re told by politicians or pundits or pedicurists or anybody else. If the assertion appears to be nonsensical, then we try to make sense of it. If it’s testable, then we use simple, commonly accepted metrics to test it.

This is the first article of three that compares the relative economic performance of the last three Republican administrations against the last three Democratic administrations. Each article uses a single criterion––in this case the reduction or containment of the federal budget deficit. The next two articles measure relative stock-market and job performance over the same period of time.

For the purpose of this first comparison, we researched the growth of the national debt during each presidential administration since fiscal year 1978, when Jimmy Carter approved his first federal budget. The comparison ends on September 30, 2018, which was the last day of the last fiscal budget approved by Barack Obama.

The incoming and outgoing national debts by administration over the forty-year period were as follows (in rounded billions):

President Party Years Entry Debt Exit Debt Increase Percent
J Carter Dem 1977-81 $772 $1,142 $370 48%
R Reagan GOP 1981-89 $1,142 $3,233 $2,091 183%
GHW Bush GOP 1989-93 $3,233 $4,693 $1,459 45%
B Clinton Dem 1993-01 $4,693 $6,228 $1,535 33%
GW Bush GOP 2001-09 $6,228 $13,562 $7,333 118%
B Obama Dem 2009-17 $13,562 $21,735 $7,813 58%

Reading across the top line, the chart shows that President Carter inherited a national debt of $772 billion. The debt had reached $1.142 trillion (that’s trillions, with a “t”) by the end his last fiscal year, which was an increase of $370 billion, or 48% more than the debt he inherited.

In aggregate, the data tell us that the national debt increased by $10.884 trillion during the last three Republican administrations and by $9.719 trillion during the last three Democratic administrations. In other words, Republican presidents increased the national debt by $1.16 trillion more than Democratic presidents, or a paltry $51 billion per fiscal year.

If that’s not clear enough: The average Republican administration increased the national debt by 115%, and the average Democratic administration increased the national debt by 46%.

Draw your own conclusions.

Unless the moon is indeed made of cheese, the Republicans will yell foul and produce their own “unbiased” analysis. That’s not to say that Democrats use agnostic, statistically valid data and Republicans get theirs from a twelve-year-old “statistician” who flunked math and who happens to be the daughter of an NRA lobbyist. Sadly, the politicians in both parties appear to be equally skilled in the dark arts of exaggeration, data manipulation, and use of third-grade logical fallacies. If, however, you have qualms about the outcome, then change the dates, find a better barometer, and run your own numbers. The Republicans will doubtless be grateful––if you can produce a different result.

It can also be argued that White House occupancy is a poor basis for comparison because Congress passes the budget and the president merely approves it. In fact, the executive branch creates the budget at the president’s direction, he and Congress negotiate it, the president signs the final bill, and then he manages federal expenditures for the entirety of the fiscal year.

Update: On June 26, 2018, the Congressional Budget Office released its latest report on the growth of the national debt. According to their projections, the national debt will exceed the size of the US economy in 2031 and double by 2048. Their assumption, by the way, is that the Trump tax cuts will be rescinded in 2026, according to current law. The bad news: Congress is considering a bill that will make Trump’s tax cuts permanent—which means that the deficit will increase more rapidly.


1) According to The Economist, only one Congressional legislator from the great state of Georgia was a Republican in 1981, a promising young man named Newt Gingrich. As of this writing, the Georgia delegation is 100% Republican.

2) The forty-year period beginning with the Carter presidency in 1977 and ending with the Obama presidency was not chosen at random. The first use of the term “post-industrial society” was attributed to Alain Touraine in 1969. A comparable analysis of the Second Industrial Age would begin circa 1850 and end circa 1970.

3) Between 1977 and 2017, Republican presidents occupied the White House for twenty years and Democratic presidents occupied the White House for twenty years. In both cases, two presidents served two terms and one president served one.

4) The sources for the budget deficits and other data are the US government and Statista. Nothing in this article came from Cambridge Analytica.

5) Their claims notwithstanding, neither party produced an annual budget surplus except for the last two fiscal years of the Clinton administration. That’s 38 years of deficits versus two years of surpluses.

The Ban on AR-15’s: By the Numbers

Lately, in the wake of the Parkland high school massacre, there’s been a lot of talk in the nation’s capitals about limiting the sale of the killer’s weapon—a modified AR-15 type assault rifle––to buyers 21 and over who can pass background checks. The objective, presumably, is something that Democrats and Republicans can agree on: to minimize the number of innocent Americans murdered by AR-15 wielding gunmen.

According to ABC News, there were 345 mass murders in the US in 2017, or nearly one per day, so it’s nigh on impossible to argue with the objective. (The definition of a mass shooting varies, but in general it means that three or more people were killed or at least two were killed and two were wounded in the same attack.) The general, politically acceptable and supposedly bipartisan proposal is to limit sales of semiautomatic weapons to sane adults who can pass a background check.

We on The Other Side feel safer already, but we’re skeptical about any solution, or rather semi-solution, that gets bandied about in the halls of Congress. We’d rather examine its efficacy through the lens of the most reliable numbers extant.

According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, somewhere between five and ten million AR-15 type firearms are owned by American citizens. We can’t speak for you, but our confidence doesn’t soar when the range of informed estimates is two to one. Regardless, let’s settle on the midpoint: 7.5 million rifles capable of being converted into semi-automatic weapons. The population of the US is around 323 million, which means that one in 43 Americans owns an AR-15 or similar weapon.

Now that we’re equipped with best-source data, let’s revisit a few massacres where the killers were equipped with AR-15 type firearms:

  • The population of Sutherland Springs, Texas, where 26 worshippers were murdered and ten were wounded, is around 600. If the averages hold, then the town’s residents owned 14 AR-15 type weapons at the time of the massacre.
  • The population of Parkland, Florida, where 17 high-school students and teachers were murdered and 14 were wounded, is about 31,000. If the averages hold, then the city’s residents owned 738 AR-15’s or equivalents at the time of the massacre.
  • The population of the Las Vegas metropolitan area, where 58 concert goers were murdered and 851 were wounded, is approximately 1,950,000. If the averages hold, then area residents owned 45,000 AR-15 type rifles at the time of the massacre.

Banning the sale of AR-15 or similar firearms to Americans under the age of 21, whether they can pass background checks or not, will have zero effect on the millions of guns already in circulation. Moreover, the banning of all future sales of AR-15’s will hardly contain the supply for those bent on murdering scores of innocents.

Notably, civilian ownership of AR-15 type semiautomatic rifles was prohibited until 2004, when the ban was lifted by a Republican-controlled Congress. By the numbers, it’s inescapably clear that nothing less than reinstatement and enforcement of the ban will make a serious dent in the frequency of mass shootings.

We’re well aware that a significant percentage of AR-15’s would not be turned in if the 2004 ban was reinstated. Many would be locked away in gun safes, and some would disappear into black markets. According to John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman, however, price increases when supply is constrained, and that means that all but the well-healed crazies would be forced to brandish less lethal weapons.

We on The Other Side have every hope that the movement started by the students of Marjory Stoneham Douglas High School will cause material, life-saving change, but we’re not holding our breath. Given the current political climate, however, we expect that there will many more massacres before some future Congress has the courage to defy the NRA and protect their constituents––if only from this one, extraordinarily dangerous firearm.