Monday, November 16, 2009

Hansen: Let' check the national pocketbook

Another extremely dull Monday at the Courier forces me to turn to the funny pages -- the pseudoblogs. Ben offers a column today in which he puts on his pundit's mitreboard and tries to take us to school on the national debt and budgets. As we've come to expect, he fails miserably.

Let's just breeze by the headline failure by our self-described "pit bull about spelling, grammar and usage." He writes,

The current national debt is $11,998,747,017,892.96. That’s 11 trillion dollars. A trillion is 1,000 billions.

Now we’re getting to the root of the problem. The last time the U.S. had a balanced budget was 1957. I was 12 years old. Congress, over a long period, under presidents and congressional majorities of both parties, has lost all sense of fiscal responsibility.
Let's take a good look at the inferences that Ben hopes his reader will make, since he is apparently incapable of just writing them out.

First, the national debt is really, really big (and if you don't know what a trillion is, he'll explain it in billions, which, since you're under age eight, you probably don't understand either), and that, we gather, is really bad, for reasons Ben apparently figures we all know.

A little historical context could be useful here. Check this out:

This is national debt as a percentage of GNP, the index that economists and investors use. Notice that they don't pay much attention to the hard number, as Ben does above, because it's meaningless except relative to the size of the economy supporting it, not unlike the size of your mortgage relative to your income. So in historical terms, yes, the national debt is high right now, but not anything like as high as we've experienced in living memory.

This one breaks out the more recent figures above by administration, which is enlightening:

I also think it's important to compare our debt with other big economies for a relative credit score:

So we see in hard numbers that our current national debt is not exceptional relative to our own history or to the rest of the world. I won't go so far as saying it's a non-problem, but given the new confidence investors can have in our decision-makers relative to the Bush administration and the interest we all have in responding decisively to our credit and employment problems, it's nothing like as scary as Ben would like to imply.

Next he makes a claim about balanced budgets. I went on a little fact-checking tour and I found where he got this idea. It's (gasp!) a blog by an anonymous guy selling stock-market advice and opining occasionally on "reckless government spending." His unusual take on the budget requires us to add government trust funds to outstanding debt to get what he sees as total public debt. If we take a somewhat more rational and conventional approach, we see that the Big Dog managed several balanced budgets in the '90s:

The way Ben juxtaposes these two ideas -- national debt and balanced budget -- he creates the impression that he thinks they're pretty close to the same thing. If he truly won't be satisfied until we clear off the national debt, he'll likely have a long wait. That's occurred exactly once in our entire history, for about a week in 1835.

Ben skims quickly over this twisted history to support his real point, and it's the usual one -- that Congresscritters can't be trusted with anything, that they're only interested in getting potted, laid and reelected, presumably so they can get potted and laid some more. I'd just love to see him say that to the face of any of the people he's criticizing. (Quite frankly I'm guessing he's just projecting what he would do if he got to Congress.)

Looking at this column as a whole, I'm having a hard time imagining what good public purpose Ben thinks he's fulfilling by publishing it. Who would be served if readers further adopt his cynicism about politicians? How would that make anything better? Does he imagine that angry voters will rise up and elect better politicians, even as he trashes everyone in Congress? What would he have them do differently?

Fueling anger without clear purpose leads only to mob mentality. Is that Ben's vision for a better America?

Update, Tuesday: I just ran across this version of the debt graph, which includes a pair of interesting projections. Notice that the editor of the graph is confusing the debt and deficits as well.