Where Did the National Debt Come From?

Trillions of reasons to spread the blame around.

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Gallup reported yesterday that a greater percentage of Americans (17 percent) are identifying the issue of the federal budget deficit and the debt as the most pressing favoring the country than at any time in the last 15 years. This is not surprising given the fact that it has been the dominant debate in Washington since the 2010 election, and especially in the last week or so as Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan laid out the GOP plan to solve the issue Wednesday President Obama unveiled his solution.

(As an aside, the fact that the deficit has become the driving issue in Washington might come as a surprise to anyone who looks closely at Gallup’s poll and sees that while more people name the deficit as the top issue, it’s still only the third most important issue, after the economy in general (26 percent) and unemployment (19 percent).) [ Check out editorial cartoons about the economy.]

A critical part of the fiscal debate of course is the question of where to lay the blame for the current problem. This isn’t merely a partisan exercise, but helpful in figuring out who has credibility in terms of solving the crisis.

[ See political cartoons about the budget deficit and national debt.]

So who got us into this mess? The best take I’ve seen comes from a recent New York Times piece on the upcoming debt ceiling debate. The Times’s Jackie Calmes writes:

In fact, the debt was created by both parties and past presidents as well as Mr. Obama.

Of the nearly $14.2 trillion in debt, roughly $5 trillion is money the government has borrowed from other accounts, mostly from Social Security revenues, according to federal figures. Several major policies from the past decade when Republicans controlled the White House and Congress — tax cuts, a Medicare prescription-drug benefit and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — account for more than $3.2 trillion.

The recession cost more than $800 billion in lost revenues from businesses and individuals and in automatic spending for safety-net programs like unemployment compensation. Mr. Obama’s stimulus spending and tax cuts added about $600 billion through the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.

A good summary to keep handy as the debt and budget debates unfold.