The Great “Fiscal Responsibility” Hoax

You’re probably worried about the federal budget deficit. Seven out of every ten American voters say the deficit plays a “very important” role in deciding whom to vote for.

And you probably think that Mitt Romney is the candidate who would do a better job of reducing the deficit. In this category, voters favor him over Obama, 51 to 37. That’s a big gap, considering the national polls are a statistical tie.

Even the South Florida Sun-Sentinel believes the hype. One of the reasons they gave for endorsing Romney was to “exercise…fiscal discipline” and “get government spending under control.”

They’ve been had. You all have.

The belief that Republicans are more fiscally conservative than Democrats is an old one. It’s so deeply ingrained in the American myth that it’s hard to know where it started. But it’s completely, factually, undeniably wrong — and has been so for awhile.

In their book Presimetrics: What the Facts Tell Us About How the Presidents Measure Up On the Issues We Care About, economist Mike Kimel and journalist Michael E. Kanell calculate the change in government spending under every president from Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush.

They found that government spending, relative to the size of the economy, increased much faster under Republican administrations than under Democratic ones. George W. Bush presided over a greater increase in government spending than any president since Lyndon Johnson, and George H.W. Bush wasn’t far behind. Bill Clinton, in contrast, was the only president since Eisenhower to actually reduce government spending. Even Reagan didn’t do that.

Since Mitt Romney has promised to increase the Pentagon budget by $2 trillion over the next decade, I find it hard to believe that he would be any different from his Republican forebears.

Kimel and Kanell also report how the budget deficit fared under each president. Here’s where the “fiscal responsibility” myth really falls apart: The Republicans increased the deficit, while the Democrats reduced it!

The least “fiscally responsible” administrations were Bush Jr., Bush Sr., Ford, and Nixon. The most deficit reduction came under Clinton and — believe it or not — Jimmy Carter.

In fact, the only presidents in this group who added to our national debt burden were Reagan and the two Bush’s. Everyone else presided over a decline in government debt, relative to the size of the economy.

For goodness sake, they said so straight to your face.

“I am not worried about the deficit,” said Reagan. “It is big enough to take care of itself.”

“Deficits don’t matter,” said Dick Cheney.

So, when economists complain over and over and over that Romney’s math doesn’t add up, they’re not just making an academic point. When Obama asks him how he’d pay for a $5 trillion tax cut, the fact that he can’t answer — the fact that every fact-checker in the known universe has said that his tax plan will blow up the budget deficit — is a flashing red warning sign that he will do what Republican presidents have been doing for half a century.

Which brings me to his opponent, Barack Obama.

On January 7, 2009, two weeks before Obama was sworn into office, the Congressional Budget Office reported that George W. Bush was bequeathing a budget deficit of $1.2 trillion. This year, the deficit is $1.3 trillion.

In other words, 92 percent of the deficit that everyone blames on Obama was actually inherited from his predecessor.

Here are the facts: In Reagan’s first term, government spending grew 8.7 percent per year. In his second term, it grew 4.9 percent per year. Under Bush Sr., 5.4 percent per year. Under Clinton’s two terms, 3.2 percent and 3.9 percent. Under Bush Jr., 7.3 percent and 8.1 percent.

Got all those numbers? Okay. Brace yourself. Under Obama: 1.4 percent.

Our current budget deficit has nothing to do with out-of-control Democratic spending and everything to do with a massive recession, tax cuts, two wars, and a scare campaign that Republicans have been successfully waging for decades to cover up their serial fiscal irresponsibility. Whether you let them fool you again is entirely up to you.

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.