The Myth of Reagan’s Debt

[Cross-posted from the new blog at]

… or at least don’t blame him for increased federal debt.

Arjun and I have been working lately on a paper on monetary and fiscal policy. (You can find the current version here.) The idea, which began with some posts on my blog last year, is that you have to think of the output gap and the change in the debt-GDP ratio as jointly determined by the fiscal balance and the policy interest rate. It makes no sense to talk about the “natural” (i.e. full-employment) rate of interest, or “sustainable” (i.e. constant debt ratio) levels of government spending and taxes. Both outcomes depend equally on both policy instruments. This helps, I think, to clarify some of the debates between orthodoxy and proponents of functional finance. Functional finance and sound finance aren’t different theories about how the economy works, they’re different preferred instrument assignments.

We started working on the paper with the idea of clarifying these issues in a general way. But it turns out that this framework is also useful for thinking about macroeconomic history. One interesting thing I discovered working on it is that, despite what we all think we know,  the increase in federal borrowing during the 1980s was mostly due to higher interest rate, not tax and spending decisions. Add to the Volcker rate hikes the deep recession of the early 1980s and the disinflation later in the decade, and you’ve explained the entire rise in the debt-GDP ratio under Reagan. What’s funny is that this is a straightforward matter of historical fact and yet nobody seems to be aware of it.

Here, first, are the overall and primary budget balances for the federal government since 1960.  The primary budget balance is simply the balance excluding interest payments — that is, current revenue minus . non-interest expenditure. The balances are shown in percent of GDP, with surpluses as positive values and deficits as negative. The vertical black lines are drawn at calendar years 1981 and 1990, marking the last pre-Reagan and first post-Reagan budgets.overall_primary
The black line shows the familiar story. The federal government ran small budget deficits through the 1960s and 1970s, averaging a bit more than 0.5 percent of GDP. Then during the 1980s the deficits ballooned, to close to 5 percent of GDP during Reagan’s eight years — comparable to the highest value ever reached in the previous decades. After a brief period of renewed deficits under Bush in the early 1990s, the budget moved to surplus under Clinton in the later 1990s, back to moderate deficits under George W. Bush in the 2000s, and then to very large deficits in the Great Recession.

The red line, showing the primary deficit, mostly behaves similarly to the black one — but not in the 1980s. True, the primary balance shows a large deficit in 1984, but there is no sustained movement toward deficit. While the overall deficit was about 4.5 points higher under Reagan compared with the average of the 1960s and 1970s, the primary deficit was only 1.4 points higher. So over two-thirds of the increase in deficits was higher interest spending. For that, we can blame Paul Volcker (a Carter appointee), not Ronald Reagan.

Volcker’s interest rate hikes were, of course, justified by the need to reduce inflation, which was eventually achieved. Without debating the legitimacy of this as a policy goal, it’s important to keep in mind that lower inflation (plus the reduced growth that brings it about) mechanically raises the debt-GDP ratio, by reducing its denominator. The federal debt ratio rose faster in the 1980s than in the 1970s, in part, because inflation was no longer eroding it to the same extent.

To see the relative importance of higher interest rates, slower inflation and growth, and tax and spending decisions, the next figure presents three counterfactual debt-GDP trajectories, along with the actual historical trajectory. In the first counterfactual, shown in blue, we assume that nominal interest rates were fixed at their 1961-1981 average level. In the second counterfactual, in green, we assume that nominal GDP growth was fixed at its 1961-1981 average. And in the third, red, we assume both are fixed. In all three scenarios, current taxes and spending (the primary balance) follow their actual historical path.counterfactuals

In the real world, the debt ratio rose from 24.5 percent in the last pre-Reagan year to 39 percent in the first post-Reagan year. In counterfactual 1, with nominal interest rates held constant, the increase is from 24.5 percent to 28 percent. So again, the large majority of the Reagan-era increase in the debt-GDP ratio is the result of higher interest rates. In counterfactual 2, with nominal growth held constant, the increase is to 34.5 percent — closer to the historical level (inflation was still quite high in the early ’80s) but still noticeably less. In counterfactual 3, with interest rates, inflation and real growth rates fixed at their 1960s-1970s average, federal debt at the end of the Reagan era is 24.5 percent — exactly the same as when he entered office. High interest rates and disinflation explain the entire increase in the federal debt-GDP ratio in the 1980s; military spending and tax cuts played no role.

After 1989, the counterfactual trajectories continue to drift downward relative to the actual one. Interest on federal debt has been somewhat higher, and nominal growth rates somewhat lower, than in the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, the tax and spending policies actually followed would have resulted in the complete elimination of the federal debt by 2001 if the previous i < g regime had persisted. But after the 1980s, the medium-term changes in the debt ratio were largely driven by shifts in the primary balance. Only in the 1980s was a large change in the debt ratio driven entirely by changes in interest and nominal growth rates.

So why do we care? (A question you should always ask.) Three reasons.

First, the facts themselves are interesting. If something everyone thinks they know — Reagan’s budgets blew up the federal debt in the 1980s — turns out not be true, it’s worth pointing out. Especially if you thought you knew it too.

Second is a theoretical concern which may not seem urgent to most readers of this blog but is very important to me. The particular flybottle I want to find the way out of is the idea that money is neutral,  veil —  that monetary quantities are necessarily, or anyway in practice, just reflections of “real” quantities, of the production, exchange and consumption of tangible goods and services. I am convinced that to understand our monetary productioneconomy, we have to first understand the system of money incomes and payments, of assets and liabilities, as logically self-contained. Only then we can see how that system articulates with the concrete activity of social production. [1] This is a perfect example of why this “money view” is necessary. It’s tempting, it’s natural, to think of a money value like the federal debt in terms of the “real” activities of the federal government, spending and taxing; but it just doesn’t fit the facts.

Third, and perhaps most urgent: If high interest rates and disinflation drove the rise in the federal debt ratio in the 1980s, it could happen again. In the current debates about when the Fed will achieve liftoff, one of the arguments for higher rates is the danger that low rates lead to excessive debt growth. It’s important to understand that, historically, the relationship is just the opposite. By increasing the debt service burden of existing debt (and perhaps also by decreasing nominal incomes), high interest rates have been among the main drivers of rising debt, both public and private. A concern about rising debt burdens is an argument for hiking later, not sooner. People like Dean Baker and Jamie Galbraith have pointed out — correctly — that projections of rising federal debt in the future hinge critically on projections of rising interest rates. But they haven’t, as far as I know, said that it’s not just hypothetical. There’s a precedent.

[1] Or in other words, I want to pick up from the closing sentence of Doug Henwood’sWall Street, which describes the book as part of “a project aiming to end the rule of money, whose tyranny is sometimes a little hard to see.” We can’t end the rule of money until we see it, and we can’t see it until we understand it as something distinct from productive activity or social life in general.


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