In 2011, when Warren Buffett jokes about ending the federal deficit in five minutes, he mentions the immediate post-WW2 deficit. At 23% of GDP, it was the worst we’ve experienced in the last sixty-five years, but it disappears quickly (Figure 1). Then come three decades of controlled deficit spending, 1950 to 1980, with the federal government countering recessions by stepping in to provide support and boost demand. That was true of both Republican and Democrat administrations. After 1980, deficits go out of control, with the exception of the Clinton surplus in the late 1990s.
Notice the 3% deficit boundary (red dashed line). If Buffett’s joke became law, members of Congress would be barred from re-election most of the time after 1980. (Vertical gray bars indicate recessions.)
Then, when Buffett mentions a national debt at over 120% of GDP, he’s talking about 1946, and the debt falls steadily from then to about 1980 (Figure 2). This is gross national debt: it includes debt owed to the public plus debt owed to federal trust funds (social security, medicare, unemployment, military retirement, federal civilian employee retirement, and so forth).
Something happens after 1980. That’s when gross national debt as a percentage of GDP begins rising to its current level. In the 31 years from 1980 to 2011 the debt rises from 33.4% of GDP to 98.7%. That’s a rise of 65 percentage points, with 43 points scored by Republicans, 22 by Democrats.
So, from 1980 to the present, Republicans outdo Democrats at adding to the national debt by almost 2 to 1, with Ronald Reagan as all-time champ (Figure 3).
By the way, recent news out of California (here and here) has it that the state Republican party is on life support, with membership down to 30% of eligible voters and party funds in the red. Maybe California will play its traditional role again as national bell-weather for cultural change. Who knows? Sometimes good things happen.