Debt And Deficits: Nostalgia For The 1980s

Back in the mid-1980s, the federal government under the Reagan administration ran what were widely considered to be excessive and risky budget deficits: from 1983 to 1986, the annual deficit was between 4.7% of GDP and 5.9% of GDP per year. The accumulated federal debt held by the public as a share of GDP rose from 21.2% of GDP in 1981 to 35.2% of GDP by 1987. I cannot exaggerate how much ink was spilled over this problem, some of it by me, back in those innocent and carefree times, before we learned to stop worrying and love the deficit.

The Congressional Budget Office has just released "The 2021 Long-Term Budget Outlook" (March 2021). There's nothing deeply new in it, but it made me think about how attitudes about budget deficits and government debt have evolved. The report notes: 

At an estimated 10.3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), the deficit in 2021would be the second largest since 1945, exceeded only by the 14.9 percent shortfall recorded last year. ... By the end of 2021, federal debt held by the public is projected to equal 102 percent of GDP. Debt would reach 107 percent of GDP (surpassing its historical high) in 2031 and would almost double to 202 percent of GDP by 2051. Debt that is high and rising as a percentage of GDP boosts federal and private borrowing costs, slows the growth of economic output, and increases interest payments abroad. A growing debt burden could increase the risk of a fiscal crisis and higher inflation as well as undermine confidence in the U.S. dollar, making it more costly to finance public and private activity in international markets.

Here are a few illustrative figures. The first one shows accumulated federal debt over time since 1900. You see the bumps for debt accumulated during World Wars I and II, and during the Great Depression of the 1930s. If you look at the 1980s, you can see the Reagan-era rise in debt/GDP. But after the debt/GDP ratio had sagged back to 26.5% by 2001, you can see the big jump for debt incurred during the Great Recession, and then debt incurred during the pandemic recession, and then where the projections under current law would take us.

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