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The Buck Stops Where?


Harry Truman famously had a sign on his desk which read “The buck stops here.” The Donald probably never heard of it, but that doesn’t exempt him from its truth.

The most outrageous breakout of statist excess in US history happened on Donald Trump’s watch with his full complicity. In turn, these Covid-lockdown assaults on normal economic function transformed what was a mediocre economic record during his first 38 months in office into a complete disaster during the last 10 months.

Indeed, nothing like these cliff dives in economic activity and employment had ever occurred in all of US economic history. Thus, during April 2020 nonfarm payroll employment (purple line) plunged by 20.5 million jobs, while Q2 real GDP (black line) contracted at a 35 percent annualized rate.

Self-evidently, these declines were literally off the charts of history.

Change In Real GDP and Nonfarm Employment, 1960 to 2020

And it didn’t end there, either. The imbalances, excesses, distortions, and malinvestments introduced into the US economy owing to the lockdowns, mandates and Covid hysteria, and then the Brobdingnagian monetary and fiscal stimmies designed to relieve these dislocations, plague us to this very day. That is, the long-term trend toward deep impairment of the engine of capitalist prosperity was already bad enough before the Donald’s arrival in the Oval Office, and then Trump-O-Nomics drove the final nail in the coffin.

All of this means, of course, that “The Covid did it” excuse doesn’t wash. Not only did four years of the MAGA economy amount to the worst growth and jobs results since WWII, but the stagflationary blowoff stage now engulfing the US economy is every bit a legacy of Trump-O-Nomics. The Donald inherited an economic mess, and then made it incredibly worse.

So we need to repair it from the beginning. The sweeping set of non-pharmaceutical interventions unleashed by the Trump Administration in March 2020 and thereafter constituted a grave affront to constitutional liberty and capitalist prosperity. In a just world, those responsible would be exposed, hounded and shamed, and prosecuted where warranted, so that future power-grabbers would forever be reminded that tyranny cannot be imposed with impunity.

Indeed, if some intrepid prosecutors really wanted to bring Trump to justice, they would pursue the grotesque violations of law and the Constitution authorized by the Donald after March 16th rather than the tawdry Stormy Daniels affair for which the Donald has already received the appropriate punishment—a fulsome measure of public ridicule.

And the parallel excuse that “The staff made me do it” doesn’t let him off the hook, either. If Donald Trump had even a minimal regard for constitutional liberties and free market principles he would never have greenlighted Dr Fauci and his Virus Patrol and the resulting tyranny they erected virtually overnight. And most especially he would not have tolerated their continuing assaults as the lockdowns dragged into weeks and months.

In this context, the one thing we learned during our days in the vicinity of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is that any president, at any moment in time, and with respect to any issue of public import, has to call on the best experts in the nation, including those who might disagree with each other vehemently.

Yet the record makes clear that in the early days of the pandemic—when the Virus Patrol’s terrible regime was being launched—the Donald was entirely passive, making no effort at all to consult experts outside of the narrow circle of power-hungry government apparatchiks  (Fauci, Birx, Collins, Adams) who were paraded into the Oval Office by his meretricious son-in-law and knucklehead vice-president.

From the very beginning of the pandemic, in fact, there were legions of pedigreed epidemiologists and other scientists—many of who later signed the Great Barrington Declaration—who correctly held that viruses cannot be extinguished via draconian quarantines and other clumsy one-size-fits-all public health interventions; and that when it came to corona-viruses in particular, it was doubtful whether even vaccines—which had never been successful with coronaviruses—could defeat the latter’s natural propensity to mutate and spread.

From day one, therefore, the logical course was to allow the virus to spread its own natural immunity among the public at large, and to focus available resources on the small minority that owing to age, compromised immune systems, or comorbidities were vulnerable to severe illness.

In a word, from its earliest days, there was no reason for a sweeping intervention by the public health apparatus at all. Nor for the coercive one-size-fits all, state-driven mobilization of quarantines, lockdowns, testing, masking, distancing, surveilling, snitching and ultimately mandated mass vaxxing. In fact, the experimental drugs developed under the Donald’s multi-$10 billion government subsidy scheme called Operation Warp Speed was probably the most insidious statist measure of all.

That these truths were known from the earliest days was especially the case because in addition to decades of scientific knowledge about the proper management of virus based pandemics, there existed the screaming real-time evidence from the stranded Diamond Princess cruise ship. The 3,711 souls (2,666 passengers and 1,045 crew) aboard skewed heavily to the elderly, but the survival rate known in mid-March 2020 was 99.7 percent overall, and 100 percent for those under 70 years of age.

That’s right. As of March 10, 2020, shortly before the Donald elected to impose Chicom-style lockdowns on the US, the ship had already been quarantined for more than three weeks and the passengers systematically tested and tracked.

At that point, 3,618 passengers and crew had been tested multiple times. Among that population, 696 had tested positive for Covid, but 410 or nearly 60 percent of these were asymptomatic. Among the 8 percent (286) who were ill, the overwhelming share were only mildly asymptotic. At that point just 7 passengers—all over 70 years old —-had died, a figure which grew only slightly in the months ahead.

In short, just 0.19 percent of an elderly skewed population had succumbed to the virus. These facts, which were known to the White House or certainly should have been, made absolutely clear that the Covid was no Black Plague-type threat. In the great scheme of history, the Trump authorized lockdowns amounted to tearing up the Constitution and ripping apart daily economic life for a public health matter that did not remotely approach the status of an existential threat to society’s survival.

To the contrary, from the beginning it was evident to independent scientists that the Covid-19 spread was an intensive but manageable challenge to America’s one-at-a-time doctor/patient health care system. The CDC, FDA, NIH and state and local public health departments were only needed to dispense solid information per their normal education role, not orders and sweeping regulatory interventions into every nook and cranny of the nation’s economic and social life.

And yet, and yet. The buck stops with Donald Trump because he could have stopped this regulatory carnage at any moment, including before it was actually launched.

But the Donald chose another even more destructive route that compounded immeasurably the harm wrought by the Virus Patrol. To wit, Trump unleashed the Virus Patrol bootheels and then embraced a fiscal and monetary compensation strategy that in essence said, “Shut it down, pay them off.”

As it happens, the government data series for personal transfer payments is posted monthly and captures a large share of the expenditures funded by the $6 trillion of Covid bailouts between March 2020 and March 2021. And there is literally nothing like the eruption of these payments in all of US history.

The annualized run rate of government transfers, including the state and local matching portions, posted at a normal level of $3.145 trillion in February 2020, but then erupted to a $6.418 trillion rate in April pursuant to the first $2 trillion relief act that the Donald enthusiastically signed.

Thereafter a second wave surged to a $5.682 trillion rate in January 2021 owing to the second relief act signed by the Donald in December, followed by a final $8.098 trillion burst in March owing to Biden’s American Rescue Act.

But even in the case of the latter, the driving force was completion of the $2,000 per person stimmy that the Donald had advocated in the run-up to the election and which had been only partially funded in the December legislation—along with extension of unemployment toppers and other expenditures that had been originated in the two earlier Trump-signed measures.

In a word, there is nothing like this very worst kind of government spending explosion in all of modern history. To wit, transfer payments are inherently inflationary poison when funded with Uncle Sam’s credit card, as these clearly were, because they goose spending without adding an iota to supply.

None of this fiscal madness, of course, would have been even purportedly necessary without the utterly unnecessary lockdowns, but even then no Republican worth his salt would have signed legislation authorizing such massive transfer payments if they were to be funded with borrowing and money-printing.

The Donald did so, of course, and there is no mystery as to why. Trump has no fiscal policy compass at all, so it was a good way to quiet what otherwise would have been a fatal political uprising against his administration during an election year.

That’s the real irony of the story. When it comes to the core matter of fiscal discipline, the Donald was no disrupter at all. He was actually the worst of the lot, and by a long shot, too.

Annualized Rate Of Government Transfer Payments, 2017 to 2021

For want of doubt, here is a longer-term perspective, reflecting the year-over-year rate of change in government transfer payments going back to 1970, shortly after the Great Society legislation kicked off today’s $4 trillion per year flood.

To appreciate the veritable fiscal shock that was issued from the Donald’s pen, it needs to be noted that in the last quarter of 2019 the Y/Y gain in government transfer payment spending was about $150 billion. By Q1 2021 that Y/Y gain had soared to $4.9 trillion. And, again, that was the delta, not the absolute level, and it was 33X larger than the pre-Covid norm!

And, no, you can’t blame this inflationary time bomb on Biden as the MAGA partisans insist, although Biden would surely have signed the two early COVID-bailout measures had he been in the Donald’s shoes during 2020.

But that’s beside the point. The stimmy checks to 90 percent of the public, the huge unemployment toppers, the massive PPP giveaways and the flood of money into the health, education, local government and nonprofit sectors were all launched and legitimized during the Donald’s tenure in office. Sleepy Joe just signed the bill that provided the final one-third of funding to a runaway fiscal locomotive that was already barreling down the tracks.

Y/Y Change In Government Transfer Payments, 1970-2021

The COVID-bailouts were not the Donald’s only fiscal sin. When you compare the constant dollar growth rate of total Federal spending during his four years in the Oval Office with that of his recent predecessors it is evident that the Donald was in a big spenders league all of his own.

In constant 2021 dollars, for instance, the Federal budget grew by $366 billion per annum on the Donald’s watch, a level 4.3X higher than the big spending years of Barack Obama, and nearly 11X higher than the 1992-2000 period under Bill Clinton.

The same story holds for the annual growth rate of inflation-adjusted Federal spending. At 6.92 percent per annum during Trump’s sojourn in the Oval Office it was 2X to 4X higher than under all of his recent predecessors.

At the end of the day, the historical litmus test of GOP policy was restraint on government spending growth, and therefore the relentless expansion of the Leviathan on the Potomac. But when it comes to that standard, the Donald’s record stands first among no equals on the wall of shame.

Federal Spending: Constant 2021 Dollar Increase Per Year:

  • Trump, 2016-2020: +$366 billion per annum;
  • Obama, 2008-2016: +$86 billion per annum;
  • George Bush the Younger:+$136 billion per annum;
  • Bill Clinton, 1992-2000:+$34 billion per annum;
  • George Bush the Elder: +$97 billion per annum;
  • Ronald Reagan, 1980-1988: +$64 billion per annum;
  • Jimmy Carter, 1976-1980: +$62 billion per annum;

Federal Spending: Annual Real Growth Rate:

  • Trump, 2016-2020: 6.92%;
  • Obama, 2008-2016: 1.96%;
  • George Bush the Younger: 3.95%;
  • Bill Clinton, 1992-2000: 1.19%;
  • George Bush the Elder: 3.90%;
  • Ronald Reagan, 1980-1988: 3.15%;
  • Jimmy Carter, 1976-1980: 3.72%

Likewise, when it comes to ballooning the public debt, Donald Trump earned his sobriquet as the King of Debt and then some.

Again, in inflation-adjusted terms (constant 2021 dollars), the Donald’s $2.04 trillion per annum add-on to the public debt amounted to double the fiscal profligacy of the Obama years, and orders of magnitude more than the debt additions of earlier occupants of the Oval.

Constant 2021 Dollar Additions To The Public Debt Per Annum:

  • Donald Trump: $2.043 trillion;
  • Barack Obama: $1.061 trillion;
  • George W. Bush: $0.694 trillion;
  • Bill Clinton: $0.168 trillion;
  • George H. W. Bush: $0.609 trillion;
  • Ronald Reagan: $0.384 trillion;
  • Jimmy Carter: -$0.096 trillion.

Ultimately, excessive, relentless public borrowing is the poison that will kill capitalist prosperity and displace limited constitutional government with unchained statist encroachment on the liberties of the people. So for that reason alone the Donald needs to be locked out of the nomination and Oval Office.

Of course, the great enabler of the Donald’s reckless fiscal escapades was the Federal Reserve, which increased its balance sheet by nearly $3 trillion or 66 percent during the Donald’s four-year term. That amounted to balance sheet expansion (i.e. money-printing) equal to $750 billion per annum—compared to gains of $300 billion and $150 billion per annum during the Barack Obama and George W. Bush tenures, respectively.

Still, the Donald wasn’t satisfied with this insane level of monetary expansion, and never did stop hectoring the Fed for being too stingy with the printing press and for keeping interest rates higher than the King of Debt in his wisdom deemed to be the correct level.

In short, given the economic circumstances during his tenure and the unprecedented stimulus emanating from the Keynesian Fed, Donald Trump’s constant demands for still easier money made even Richard Nixon look like a paragon of financial sobriety. The truth is, no US president has ever been as reckless on monetary matters as Donald Trump.

That’s why it’s especially rich that the die-hard MAGA fans at the likes of Fox News are now gumming loudly for a revival of the great Trump economy, when it is the egregious fiscal, monetary, and regulatory excesses during his tenure that gave rise to the current economic mess.

Then again, they have been Trumpified. After years of the Donald insisting that even more fiat money should be pumped into the economy, the GOP politicians gave the Fed a free hall pass during the 2022 campaign; and did so during an inflation-besotted election season that was tailor-made for a hammer-and-tongs attack on the inflationary money-printers domiciled in the Eccles Building.

Once upon a time GOP politicians knew better. Certainly Ronald Reagan did amidst the double-digit inflation of 1980.

The Gipper did not hesitate to say that Big Government, deficit spending and monetary profligacy were the cause of the nation’s economic ills. He was right, and he won the election in a landslide.

Indeed, your editor and friends even persuaded him to include a gold standard plank in the 1980 GOP platform.

By contrast, consult the videos or transcripts of a score or two of MAGA rallies. Did anything remotely resembling the Reagenesque take on inflation ever flow from the Donald’s bombastic vocal chords?

Of course not. That’s because Trump is not an economic conservative in any way, shape, or form. He’s simply an opportunistic demagogue who chanced to stumble upon the violent illegal alien theme (murders and rapists) on his way down the escalator to the announcement of his candidacy in June of 2015, which theme he then paired with his lifelong adherence to a primitive form of trade protectionism.

The essence of this couplet was the misbegotten notion that America’s problems are caused by foreigners lurking offshore, when in reality the nation’s ills stem from bad policy ideas deeply embedded inside the Washington beltway.

Yet since June 2015 there has emerged a toxic formulation of MAGA that amounts to stopping the alleged hordes of illegal aliens at the border and the flow of foreign goods at US ports. That was and remains the heart of the Donald’s domestic program.

Unfortunately, it is the wrong answer to the nation’s economic, social and political ills, and will never be a winning platform like the one upon which the Gipper rode into office under similar circumstances in 1980.

In the meanwhile, the catastrophic error embodied in the Donald’s Covid policies during the spring and summer of 2020 has now been dramatically underscored by the age-adjusted mortality data depicted in the chart below.

Of course, the whole COVID-plague narrative was built on the insane numbers diarrhea about tests, case counts, hospital counts, death counts and heart-rending anecdotes generated by the public health apparatus and its megaphones in the MSM. But the single most important thing to grasp is that when it comes to the heart of the narrative—the alleged soaring death counts—the narrative is just plain bogus.

The undisputed fact is that the CDC changed rules for causation on death certificates in March 2020, so now we have no idea whatsoever whether the 1.05 million deaths reported to date were deaths because OF Covid or just incidentally were departures from this mortal world WITH Covid. The extensive well-documented cases of hospital DOAs from heart attacks, gunshot wounds, strangulation or motorcycle accidents, which had tested positive before the fatal event or by postmortem, are proof enough.

Fortunately, what we do know is that not even the power-drunk apparatchiks at the CDC and other wings of the Federal public health apparatus found a way to change the total mortality counts from all causes.

That’s the smoking gun unless you consider the year 2003 to have been an unbearable year of extraordinary death and societal misery in America. To wit, the age-adjusted death rate from all causes in America during 2020 was actually 1.8 percent lower than it had been in 2003 and nearly 11 percent lower than it had been during what has heretofore been understood to be the benign year of 1990!

To be sure, there was a slight elevation of the all-causes mortality rate in 2020 relative to the immediately preceding years. That’s because the Covid did disproportionately and in some ghoulish sense harvest the immunologically vulnerable elderly and comorbid slightly ahead of the Grim Reaper’s ordinary schedule.

And far worse, there were also extraordinary deaths in 2020 among the less Covid vulnerable population owing to hospitals that were in government-ordered turmoil; and also to an undeniable rise in human malfunction among the frightened, isolated, home-bound quarantined, which resulted in a swelling of homicides, suicides and a record level of deaths from drug overdoses (94,000).

Still, the common sense line of sight across this 30-year chart below tells you 1,000 times more than the context-free case and death counts which scrolled across America’s TV and computer screens day in and day out, even as the Donald’s Task Force was fanning the flames of hysteria from the White House bully pulpit.

In short, the data below tells you there was no deadly plague; there was no extraordinary public health crisis; and that the Grim Reaper was not stalking the highways and byways of America.

Compared to the pre-Covid norm recorded in 2019, the age-adjusted risk of death in America during 2020 went up from 0.71 percent to 0.84 percent. In humanitarian terms, that’s unfortunate but it does not even remotely bespeak a mortal threat to societal function and survival and therefore a justification for the sweeping control measures and suspensions of both liberty and common sense that actually happened.

This fundamental mortality fact—the “science” in bolded letters if there is such a thing—totally invalidates the core notion behind the Fauci policy that was sprung upon our deer-in-the-headlights president stumbling around the Oval Office in early March 2020.

In a word, this chart proves that the entire Covid strategy was wrong and unnecessary. Lock, stock and barrel.

And also, at the end of the day, that Harry Truman’s buck stops with the Donald.

Reprinted from David Stockman’s Service, which is now available on Substack

Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
For reprints, please set the canonical link back to the original Brownstone Institute Article and Author.


  • David Stockman

    David Stockman, Senior Scholar at Brownstone Institute, is the author of many books on politics, finance, and economics. He is a former congressman from Michigan, and the former Director of the Congressional Office of Management and Budget. He runs the subscription-based analytics site ContraCorner.

    View all posts

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