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Did the War on Terror create the $17 trillion dollar debt?

Welcome to VoteFacts.  I read this claim by Kimberly Amadeo at About.com:

"Although stimulus spending has been blamed for increasing the budget deficit, in fact military spending has been the largest contributor to deficit spending.  This deficit spending, which has been ongoing since 2002 thanks to the War on Terror, created more than a $17 trillion debt."

Boy, this sure warranted a trip down Fact Lane.  Let's start with the part where the writer claims that, "This deficit spending, which has been ongoing since 2002 thanks to the War on Terror, created more than a $17 trillion debt."

If deficit spending from the War on Terror "created more than a $17 trillion dollar debt" since 2002, then our debt would have to have been zero just before the deficit started climbing again and that war started, but it was not, and we'll get to those facts.

First, let's notice the difference between "deficit" and "debt".  

Deficit - The deficit is the difference between the money Government takes in, called receipts, and what the Government spends, called outlays, each year.

Debt - Debt is accumulated deficits.  Treasurydirect.gov

Now that we have looked more closely at those definitions, let's look at where the debt was as the War on Terror was beginning.  You can visit the Fast Fact's section here and notice the overall historical trend with federal spending.   Prior to 1930, for example, the federal government spent 71 percent of its budget on national defense, veteran’s benefits, and occasional public debt.  Today, over 73 percent of federal spending goes toward a category called Human Resources, which includes many programs aimed at creating a stronger and better society.  The federal government has done a complete shift in where it spends the bulk of its budget.

Here is what the debt looked like as the War on Terror began.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB)

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) shows us that gross federal debt totaled more than $5.7 trillion dollars in 2001, just as the War on Terror was beginning.  Between 2001 and 2008 (2008 being the beginning of the Great Recession), just over $4 trillion dollars was added to that debt leaving it at $9.9 trillion by the end of fiscal year 2008, according to the OMB .   OMB Table

Enter, The Great Recession

Here is what the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has told us about the federal debt and deficit:

The Congressional Budget Office 

"...the recent jump in debt... can be attributed in part to an ongoing imbalance between federal revenues and spending but, more important, to the financial crisis and deep recession and the policy responses to those developments.  According to the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO’s) projections, federal debt held by the public will stand at 62 percent of GDP at the end of fiscal year 2010, having risen from 36 percent at the end of fiscal year 2007, just before the recession began. In only one other period in U.S. history—during and shortly after World War II—has that figure exceeded 50 percent."  CBO, Page 2

 The major slowdown in economic activity and the policy responses to the turmoil in the housing and financial markets have significantly affected the federal budget.  As a share of the economy, the deficit for this year is anticipated to be the largest recorded since World War II.   (CBO, Page 1

And what was happening with the deficit between 2002 and 2008?  Here is what the OMB shows (rounded numbers):

2002 = $157 billion deficit

2003 = $377 billion deficit

2004 = $413 billion deficit

2005 =  $318 billion deficit

2006 = $248 billion deficit

2007 = $160 billion deficit

2008 = $458 billion deficit

2009 = $1.4 trillion deficit

2010 = $1.2 trillion deficit

2011 = $1.2 trillion deficit

2012 = $973 billion (CBO)

Note that the deficit was consistently dropping prior to the Great Recession, but the War on Terror was still ongoing.  

More about where the money goes.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS)

Transfers and payments to persons and state and local governments constitute most of federal spending, about 70%. Defense spending, currently accounting for about 20% of spending, has declined over the past 35 years, but also tends to vary depending, in part, on the presence and magnitude of international conflicts.  A small share of federal spending is for direct provision of domestic government services, which many people may think of when considering federal spending, and is normally about 10% of total federal spending.  CRS, Summary

In fiscal year 2013, the federal government spent $2.4 trillion on Human Resources, which include education/training/employment and social services, Health, Medicare, Income Security, and Social Security.  That same year, the federal government spent $633 billion on National Defense. That amounts to 18.3% for defense and 70% for Human Resources.  OMB Table

You have focused on facts, so what do you think about the About.com claim?  Should you consider them a valid, educational resource?





Resource Links 

About.com Article

Treasurydirect.gov on Deficit/Debt

OMB Table - Debt

CBO Report, Page 1

OMB Table - Deficit

CBO, Page 1

CRS Report, Summary Page

OMB Table, FY 2013
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