Debt, Deficit, or Any Old Excuse

StopCan you locate the error?! This is from Glenn Thrush this morning:

Voters overwhelmingly say they want him to do more to deal with a deficit that is set to exceed $14 trillion by the end of the fiscal year.

If you said “$14 trillion” or “deficit” you win! What Thrush means is that the total gross public debt is set to exceed $14 trillion. And note: this is gross; if you take into account public reserves (like the Social Security Trust Fund), it is less: around $9 trillion.

People make this error all the time. The deficit is how much more we spend in a given year than we take in. The debt is the total result of our over-spending for the last 200+ years.

Matt Yglesias notes that it doesn’t really matter: “The people who are very upset about the ‘$14 trillion’ deficit aren’t going to become less upset about it when they realize it’s only $845 billion, anymore than the people worried about ‘out of control’ government spending become less worried when they learn that government spending has been flat for almost three years.” (Actually, government spending has decreased every one of the past three years.)

But I would counter: just because some people are perpetually freaked out about debt and deficits, doesn’t mean we should go along with it. After all, these were the same people who voted Ronald Reagan into office. You know how that went:

Whenever I hear people complaining about our out of control debt, I wonder, “If it’s out of control now, why were you also screaming in 1980 when it was only $2 trillion?” The truth is that these people will always be screaming and they are always doing it for the same reason: they hate government programs that help the poorer classes. They are just looking for a reason to justify it. The debt or the deficit? It doesn’t matter to them because it is just too damned big and we need to cut entitlements now!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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