Thursday, March 21, 2013

Count 'em

Yesterday I wrote the past, when the economy WAS better, we could not and did not draw down the Federal debt.

I don't like saying things like that without checking my facts. So I checked some facts, finished up that post, and decided to use my fact-checking for my next post. Waste not, want not.

The FRED "Federal Surplus or Deficit" data:

Graph #1: Federal Deficits (and Surpluses) since 1901
Easy to see the deficits got big and bigger since the 1970s. Can't see much of anything before that, except World War Two.

How to look at the numbers and see whether budgets were generally balanced or generally unbalanced? Don't need to know if deficits are big or bigger. Just need to know if they are deficits or surpluses. I decided to count years.

The first year, 1901, had a surplus. Count that as one. The next year, surplus. Two. The third year, surplus. Three. The fourth year, deficit. Two. So far, I count two more years of surplus than deficit.

So I did the whole 112 years like that. If I end up at the end with a total of 112, then all the years had surpluses. If I end up with -112, then all the years had deficits. If I end up with zero, then half the years had surpluses and half had deficits. If I end up with -46, then 46 more years had deficits than surpluses.

Instead of just getting the final tally, I made a graph:

Graph #2: Since 1901, count of Surplus Years less Count of Deficit Years

Between 1901 and 1917 the count varied between 1 and 4. It was always "advantage surplus" in those years. From a tally of 4 in 1916, three deficits in a row during World War One pushed the tally down to 1 in 1919. So, from 1901 to the end of WWI, there was one year more of surplus than of deficit. Remarkable.

After 1919 it was surplus after surplus through the roaring '20s, to a max tally of 12 in 1930. Thereafter, the Great Depression and then World War Two saw only deficits. The tally bottomed out at -4 in 1946.

Interestingly, a string of budget surpluses led into the Great Depression, and a string of budget deficits led out of the Great Depression.

Between 1946 and 1960 it was all back-and-forth, reminiscent of the first two decades of the century, except it was "advantage deficit". In 1960, as in 1946, the tally was -4.

From 1960 to 1997 it was one deficit after another in a continuous run, with the single exception of 1969's balanced budget. The low point in 1997 was -39.

Then there were a few years of surplus. The tally increased by four, to -35 in 2001. You will remember the balanced budgets of the Clinton years, I expect.

Finally, from 2001 to 2012, an uninterrupted string of deficits. The final tally as of 2012 was -46: 46 of the 112 budgets were in deficit, plus exactly half of the other 66.

In total, 33 budget surpluses in 112 years, and 79 deficits.

If we start instead from 1960, 6 of the 53 years show surplus. 47 show deficit.

For graph #2 and the data, see my Google Drive spreadsheet.


Gene Hayward said...

Going to use your graph in class. Nice! Also, notice how the surpluses of the 90's kinda looks like it is giving "the finger" to the rest of the graph. That's about right. :)

The Arthurian said...


I was kinda pleased with how that graph turned out. Glad you can use it!