Pointing fingers and calling each other “fearmongers,” politicians do a good job confusing, if not terrifying, the rest of us by throwing around figures numbering in the billions and trillions of dollars. Just about everyone feels some real trepidation when considering a national debt over $30 trillion and cannot imagine adding $400 billion to domestic spending.
I do not claim any political or economic expertise, but I do know something about numbers and historical research. My college majors in mathematics and psychology included a good deal of work on how to analyze statistics. I learned how statistics can mislead well-intentioned folks, and how unscrupulous purveyors can use them to lie and deceive intentionally.
Our country has incurred debt since the time of President George Washington. Our obligations hit their lowest point, and the only time the country has ever been debt-free, in 1835 under President Andrew Jackson, though a depression at the end of his term in 1837 left the country with a $337,000 deficit when he departed office.
The trend has not always risen upward, but the last time the debt decreased came under President Calvin Coolidge, who left office in 1929, several months before the Great Wall Street Crash. Since then, every president has left office with a larger debt than he inherited from his predecessor.
During Joe Biden’s presidency, the national debt has increased by $2.5 trillion, an increase of 8.79 percent since he took office in early 2021, for an average increase of about 5.26 percent per year — staggering facts, indeed! But not as much so when you examine the numbers in the accompanying chart:
The national debt clearly grew under each of the seven presidents who preceded Biden. President Bill Clinton had the lowest average percent increase per year; President Ronald Reagan the highest. Measured by the average percent increase per year, the debt increased more per year during the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency than over the eight years under President Barack Obama.
Understandably, billions seem almost as scary and intimidating as trillions. Put in perspective, a spending increase of $400 billion, though quite a large number, represents 1.3 percent of the overall current debt.
Realizing that some form of national debt has traveled with us throughout our country’s history, we can move beyond the illusion and deception so common in our political arena. This discovery also offers us a clear opportunity to move the debate to historical and relevant analysis, based on accurate information.
Psychologists often ask conflicting parties to step back and take a look at what is really happening here. Stripped of the emotional tags and the innuendos and the foggy phrases, we have a chance to engage in open and genuine dialog.
Trying to find a piece of common ground usually produces a good starting point for open discussion. Beneath the shouting and the name-calling, both sides very likely have many legitimate concerns. Our real-life issues demand this path forward, if we truly seek renewal and healing.
Once we have cut away all the bluster, we may also need to develop some ground rules of engagement. Here lies the greater challenge for all of us — greater than billions and trillions of dollars, but worth infinitely more than whatever we spend or save. We might just begin to sit down together and talk about our deeper concerns, respecting the other side and someday even uniting beyond the clouds that divide us now — a breakthrough worth more than billions and trillions.
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