Which president spent the most?

Just for fun, here’s another way to look at the same data we’ve been playing with (in this post and this one.)

First thing is to calculate the inflation-adjusted spending per capita. Then total up the entire amount spent under each president. We could rank presidents this way, but it’s unfair to people like FDR who spent a lot longer in office then did, say, Ford. So I divided the total (inflation-adjusted per capita) by the number of years in office.

This gives a ranking based on who on average had the highest yearly spending. Everything is in 2008 dollars. Democrats in blue and Republicans in Red as usual.

Everybody is guessing, as we mentioned last week, but if the guesses are close, then Obama will top this list with $9400 per citizen per year.

Bush II 8900
Bush I 8200
Clinton 8000
Reagan 7500
Carter 6600
Ford 6200
Nixon 5400
Johnson 4600
JFK 4000
Truman 3400
Eisenhower 3400
FDR 2200
Wilson 700
Harding 500
Hoover 400
Coolidge 300
T Roosevelt 200
Taft 200

As was pointed out, this list does not take into account Congress.


  1. Bernie

    These numbers are depressing. I am not sure I understand what you mean by 2008 dollars. Was the tax burden/spending really that low during the Hoover administration? What happens if you divide actual expenditure by actual average income to produce an index of the “burden”.

  2. Mark

    Just for fun … can we see the same data presented by which party controls Congress? As we know, Presidents can’t “spend” money … they can only sign or veto what lands on their desk. Without a line-item veto, there’s little a President can do to reign in Congressional spending tendencies beyond use of the bully pulpit.

  3. Joy

    Isn’t it a bit strange that the list order up until Wilson is the same as the historical order looking back. I’m wondering if government spending is growing simply because there’s more to spend money on than before. Just a fact of life rather than the creep of “bigger government; This must be partly true. The American political system is still a teenager in historical terms, and has still to reach some sort of plateau in terms of what will and what will not be government responsibility.
    I used to believe strongly that the NHS was sacred. I grew up thinking that health provision was free!
    It costs our government roughly £100 Billion a year. So what happens if someone breaks their leg in the US and they can’t afford to pay. Someone must be providing free health care for such cases and picking up the bill.
    An amusing quote from a member of the public over here, complaining about his lot:
    “The government just doesn’t care”. Strange and misguided this was, but the more the government does, the more people shout “what about me”. It’s clear how this attitude slowly comes about.

    Obama has promised everybody everything. He has set himself up. However, looking at the table, it makes one wonder whether party politics is irrelevant here. Do the parties kid themselves that they have different values but bumble on the same once they’re in the driving seat from where the lye of the land looks different.

  4. Briggs


    Your request is a natural one. If somebody wants to collect this, I’ll be happy to do it. Of course, you have to keep separate track of the House and Senate. Does anybody out there have time to create a spreadsheet with the years 1901 – 2008 with three columns: year, house majority, senate majority?


    Yes, it does seem that it was. This is also backed up on the previous charts. Hard to do income, because that’s a range and not a single number, the average being a poor summary of that range. Plus, as Mike and others have pointed out, income is an imperfect measure of wealth.


    “Don’t just do something, stand there!”

  5. stan

    OT, have you looked at Willis’ work this morning (11/24) at Climate Audit on the Mann hockey stick? Thoughts?

  6. Bill

    Your figures are misleading. While you do adjust for inflation, you have not adjusted for real GDP growth, (maybe about 2.5%-3.0% pa). Expenditure as a percentage of GDP would be much more valid.

  7. Briggs


    Misleading is a pretty strong word here. The numbers might not meet your expectations, or answer any questions you might have, or answer any interesting questions at all, but I don’t think they are in any way misleading.

    The inflation numbers I use are fairly standard, though we will both agree that there is no perfect measure of what inflation is.

    I can understand the argument that as a country grows richer, it can afford to spend more on its citizens…unless the number of citizens has increased apace. That’s what these charts are meant to show.

    Anyway, there are plenty of places out there that look at spending as a percentage of GDP.

  8. Noblesse Oblige

    Let’s look at spending as percent of gdp rather than per capita.

  9. William R

    I agree with Bill et al. Although I don’t think it is misleading, it simply does not prove any point. The same trend would be seen when evaluating spending trends of anything over time: food, transportation, entertainment, charitable giving, etc etc etc. Like others have said, it assumes that none of the GDP growth over time is ever applied to government. I don’t think that is realistic, nor what one would expect.

    This analysis can neither prove an increase role in government over time (although I’m sure a % of GDP analysis would show this), nor does it show that the GOP in the White House results in more limited government (although I would like to think that it does!). I agree that % GDP is the best way to look at this issue.

  10. Briggs

    William R,

    You can say that the measure of inflation is suspect, and I would agree, and you can also ask for some kind of GDP analysis, and I’d agree too.

    But it’s wrong to say that this analysis does not show anything. It does show the inflation-adjusted dollars spent per person (see especially the other two posts). When you say this is meaningless without a GDP analysis you are saying that it is OK that the government increases its per person spending as long as people are making more.

    Now, that might be a good argument, but the previous graphs show this spending has reached about $10,000 per person. Per human being. That, to say the least, is a huge number. Median household incomes are about $50,000, and for 3 to 4 people in a house, well, there isn’t any money left over after paying this government bill.

    The original, and uncontroversial, conclusion is that fewer and fewer people are paying more and more. We can speculate that these people, who were smart enough to make their obviously huge piles of money, will, on average, ensure that they have more and more of a say of how it is spent. That is, they will increase their control over government.

    That said, if I can find time to include the GDP in all this, I will.

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