By Brian M. Carney
Wall Street Journal
March 5, 2011
In his best-selling history of the 20th century, "Modern Times," British historian Paul Johnson describes "a significant turning-point in American history: the first time the Great Republic, the richest nation on earth, came up against the limits of its financial resources." Until the 1960s, he writes in a chapter titled "America's Suicide Attempt," "public finance was run in all essentials on conventional lines"—that is to say, with budgets more or less in balance outside of exceptional circumstances.
"The big change in principle came under Kennedy," Mr. Johnson writes. "In the autumn of 1962 the Administration committed itself to a new and radical principle of creating budgetary deficits even when there was no economic emergency." Removing this constraint on government spending allowed Kennedy to introduce "a new concept of 'big government': the 'problem-eliminator.' Every area of human misery could be classified as a 'problem'; then the Federal government could be armed to 'eliminate' it."