Republican National Convention: The one graph you need to see before watching

August 28, 2012

On the Republican convention stage tonight, you’re going to see a really large clock. But the clock isn’t for keeping time. The idea isn’t to stop speakers from going over their allotted time, or the convention from running late. It’s a debt clock. And the idea is to blame President Obama and the Democrats for the national debt.

But in doing so, the Republicans will end up blaming Obama for the policies they pushed in the Bush years, and the recession that began on a Republican president’s watch, and a continuation of tax cuts that they supported. They’ll have to. Because if they took all that off the debt clock, there wouldn’t be much debt there to blame him for at all.

The single thing you should look at to understand the debt clock and what it is -- or isn't -- telling you is this graph from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. It does something very simple. It takes public debt since 2001 -- which is when we last saw surpluses -- and breaks it into its component parts.

You can see it kind of looks like a layer cake. In fact, the folks at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities call it "the parfait graph."

The top layer, the orange one, that’s the Bush tax cuts. There is no single policy we have passed that has added as much to the debt, or that is projected to add as much to the debt in the future, as the Bush tax cuts, which Republicans passed in 2001 and 2003 and Obama and the Republicans extended in 2010. To my knowledge, all elected Republicans want to make the Bush tax cuts permanent. Democrats, by and large, want to end them for income over $250,000.

In second place is the economic crisis. That’s the medium blue. Recessions drive tax revenue down because people lose their jobs, and when you lose your job, you lose your income, and when you lose your income, you can't pay taxes. Tax revenues in recent years have been 15.4 percent of GDP -- the lowest level since the 1950s. Meanwhile, they drive social spending up, because programs like unemployment insurance and Medicaid automatically begin spending more to help the people who have been laid off.

Then comes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s the red. And then recovery measures like the stimulus. That’s the light blue, and the part for which you can really blame Obama and the Democrats-- though it’s worth remembering that the stimulus had to happen because of a recession that began before Obama entered office, and that the Senate Republicans proposed and voted for a $3 trillion tax cut stimulus that would have added almost four times what Obama’s stimulus added to the debt.

Then there's the financial rescue measures like TARP, which is the dark blue line. That's almost nothing, as much of that money has been paid back.

If we didn’t have all that? If there’d been no Bush tax cuts, no wars, no financial crisis and everything else had been the same? Debt would be between 20 and 30 percent of GDP today, rather than almost 100 percent.

Now, the response you sometimes get to this graph is yes, that's true, but Obama should have done more about the debt. But Obama has proposed a multi-trillion dollar deficit reduction plan. Republicans just refused to pass it. And, to be fair, he refused to sign their plan, too. So the question then is less about what led to the debt and more about who has the right plan to get rid of it. I'll get into that in a subsequent post.

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