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The Debt

June 2024
1min read

John Steele Gordon’s “The Federal Debt” is for the most part written with the erudition and power readers of American Heritage have come to expect of Gordon. It is all the more regrettable that the last page and a half has been replaced (due, no doubt, to a computer error) by a puff piece from the Republican National Committee. Besides the obiter dictum that the Reagan arms buildup “finally helped bring victory in the Cold War” (how President Mondale would have shored up the old Soviet Union is not explained), nothing is said about the effect on the deficit and debt by the advent of supplyside economics and monetarism as the new economic orthodoxy (at least in the Executive Branch). In light of the article’s excoriation of Keynesianism, the fact that the deficit expanded to record-breaking proportions under a President trained in economics (to my knowledge, the only Chief Executive to possess an economics degree) who explicitly rejected Keynesianism ought at least to have been mentioned.

Between the years 1978 and 1982 (when the President and both houses of Congress were Keynesian and Democratic) the average yearly deficit was 63.0 billion dollars, and the national debt at the end of 1981 was 997.9 billion. Between 1982 and 1985 (antiKeynesian President and Republican Senate) the average yearly deficit was 183.3 billion, and the national debt at the end of 1985 was 1,823.1 billion. In light of the political change in 1980, Gordon’s (unspoken) assumption that the near-tripling of the deficit and near-doubling of the national debt was the natural continuation of 1970s conditions is implausible in the extreme.

The responsibility of Congress for the national debt is a heavy one, yet the only mention of presidential responsibility since Nixon is a gratuitous “explanation” of why President Clinton deserves no credit for his achievements in deficit reduction. Even if an honest discussion of the role of supply-side economics in creating the current debacle is impossible (due to Forbes’s presidential campaign), such naked partisanship is unworthy of American Heritage .

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