Based on extensive primary source analysis and in-depth interviews with key figures in the field of public debt administration and policy development, this volume presents a comprehensive history of the U.S. public debt from 1775–when the first debt was incurred to finance the Revolutionary War–to the present. The authors document how the public debt has accumulated and review the methods the government has employed to manage and administer it. They describe the impact of wars, depressions, and macroeconomic policy on the growth of the debt and detail how the handling of the debt was linked to the evolution of the banking system. Their goal throughout is to put the current debt situation into historical perspective, providing an objective evaluation of both the current levels of debt growth and the effectiveness of debt management policies and administration.
Following an introductory chapter, the study is arranged chronologically and begins with three chapters which describe the management of the public debt through 1900–a period during which the public debt was relatively small and its management simple. The debt was small, the authors show, because prevailing attitudes toward public finance fostered a fiscal system that relied on balanced budgets, except in wartime. The remaining chapters focus on twentieth century debt growth, administration, and management. A shift in policy away from balanced budgets and a public attitude of less concern about payment of the public debt have made federal budget deficits the norm, the authors demonstrate, and such running deficits require complex debt administration measures. The evolution of the system of debt management and administration that is coordinated by the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve, and the Bureau of Public Debt is a major focus of these chapters. Challenging the views of many analysts and observers, the authors conclude that the recent growth of the public debt is no greater than that which has occurred in other periods, and that government policies of debt management and administration have been effective and timely and have made good use of modern technology. An important contribution to the literature of economic history, this book will also be of significant interest to scholars in economic policy, economic theory, and public policy.