It’s amazing the things you can learn from a simple quiz on a morning radio show. But not the item that was intended, that is. A station that my wife listens to while getting ready for work often has one of those “Seventh caller who gets this question correct wins free tickets to the phone polishers convention” or some such crazy event. Usually, the questions are very easy. Things like “What color was the brick road that Dorothy followed in The Wizard of Oz”. Something you could answer in your sleep (which is probably appropriate as I’d venture that most listeners ARE half asleep at that point).
This morning, the question was “What president reduced the national debt to zero in 1905?” I thought this was a little more difficult than the usual, but still not much of a challenge. After all, as we only have one president at a time, the simplified version of it is “Who was president in 1905?” So I immediately thought “Teddy Roosevelt”, but knowing that that’s a little more toward the fringe of the average citizen’s memory than the hue of a young girl’s fantasy roadway, I wouldn’t get upset if someone said “Taft” or even “Wilson” (hey, what’s a dozen years, right?). So, the first caller says “Franklin Roosevelt”. I think, “Right family, probably just a little nervous on the phone and they inadvertently switched them”. Second caller says “Truman”. “Truman? Is this guy nuts? Truman: world war two, atomic bomb, how do you get 1905?” I keep listening. The third caller says “FDR”. Now I’m getting pissed. I’m thinking “Did you not hear the first caller? Do you not know that FDR stands for Franklin Delano Roosevelt?” I mean, forget the 35 year or so differential, just listen to the other contestant. Then it hits me that I may have given too much credit to the first person with regards to being nervous.
I never stuck around to hear how this played out, but out of curiosity, I did search a little about the national debt. It turns out that TR did not reduce the debt to 0 in 1905. All of the sources I dug up indicate that we had a debt in 1905, although it had leveled off and had even begun to decline during his administration. So perhaps the announcer screwed up the question and it was supposed to be in reference to the rate of accumulation of the debt or the annual budget deficit.
If you’re interested, here’s a nice graph showing a time line of the national debt expressed as a percentage of GDP. The notable portions are the huge spike during WWII (hey, if you need to spend like there’s no tomorrow, you should do it when, in fact, there’s a real possibility of there being no tomorrow), and the huge positive slopes that occurred during the 1980’s and early 1990’s; and since 2000. Hmmm, who was in office then??