Patterico's Pontifications

3/26/2014

Ezra Klein Stands By Misleading Video

Filed under: General — Patterico @ 4:42 pm

Ezra Klein has written me to say that he stands by the video that opens with the phrase:

The United States’s national debt is 12.5 trillion dollars.

As I noted earlier today, the United States’s national debt is $17.5 trillion dollars. Only a portion of that — debt held by the public — is $12.5 trillion.

Here is Klein’s email:

Hey Patterico –

I get where you’re coming from on this, but I actually think we’re pretty clear that we’re dealing with public debt (which is the correct measure for these purposes). Indeed, in this e-mail, you note that we note that it’s public debt. It’s there on large letters on the screen. It seems to me that you’re looking at this as if the audio track and the video are somehow separate but the two exist only in concert — this isn’t published as a piece somewhere else on the site, because it wouldn’t make sense absent the visuals that are the core of the presentation.

If we did have an article we’d probably spend some time explaining the difference between public debt and other measures and conveying why this one makes the most sense, but for a quick explainer, just clearly labeling the measure we’re using made the most sense.

I appreciate you reaching out, and am glad you’re watching!

My response speaks for itself:

Ezra,

This video seems geared towards unsophisticated news consumers. Given the audience, the false impression conveyed is that “debt held by the public” (the phrase in the graphic) is the same thing as “the United States’s national debt” (the phrase used by Yglesias).

Your argument, and that of Yglesias, seems to be that if a relatively sophisticated news consumer knows the difference, so will your audience of twenty-somethings. In other words, if I can spot the sleight of hand going on here — your equating two measures that aren’t truly equivalent — then all is well.

But I think you’re misleading your target audience and you know you’re doing it.

P

UPDATE: More from our exchange. Ezra chides me for saying he knows he is misleading people:

Well, I can assure you that by using the correct debt measure and labeling it clearly in large letters we did not think we were misleading anyone. I think both unsophisticated and sophisticated readers will read the large words on the screen and come away with the right number in their heads.

Also, as a general point, you could be more generous. In my experience almost no one is ever trying to mislead their audience. I recognize you don’t agree with the point of this video. But it doesn’t hurt you to assume good faith, and it might even help you see where other folks are actually coming from!

My response:

Two points.

1) In 2011, you considered bonds held by Social Security to be real debt that had to be paid back.

So the “debt held by the public” is not really “the correct debt measure” according to your own previous analysis.

2) The “large words on the screen” accompany audio verbiage referencing “the United States’s national debt.” The natural conclusion drawn by anyone not previously aware of the distinction is that “the United States’s national debt” IS the “debt held by the public” — nothing more, nothing less.

The fact that *I* know the difference does not mean that a person who needs this stuff “explained” is going to think: hey, I know they’re saying “the United States’ national debt” but the accompanying graphic means they are referring only to a subset of that debt — the part held by the public.

Come on, dude. That is not a thought running through the head of *anyone* who doesn’t already know this stuff. You know that’s the case.

If people don’t already know this stuff, they’re going to think the two are the *same* — that the U.S. debt consists of the $12.5 trillion held by the public.

That is not true, you didn’t consider it to be true in 2011, and yet you are conveying that impression to unsophisticated readers now.

P

UPDATE x2: Klein’s latest response:

I don’t think you actually understand the dispute in the 2011 post – or perhaps in the video. Debt the government owes itself is debt it has to manage. But it doesn’t have the same effects, for all kinds of reasons, as public debt. There’s a reason when cbo does this it uses public debt.

http://www.cbo.gov/publication/45010

The video is about the effects of our debt load – which is to say, the effects of primarily of the Feds perception of our debt load, and of the markets perception of the Feds perception. Those effects, as watched by fed, by cbo, and others are based on public debt. As Matt says, the fed is the key actor here, and when bernanke talks about our debt, he also refers to cbo calculations of public debt:

http://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/testimony/bernanke20130522a.htm

All of which is to say that this is the right measure to be using and that doesn’t take away from my 2011 post on a different kind of debt question at all. And even if it did, the video is by Matt, not me.

I’ve tried in these emails to clearly lay out my take on the video because I want you to see that we’re trying to get this stuff right. But I can see from your posts that you don’t really want to hear it – you want to play a game of gotcha with me, and whip up your folks, which is of course your right. So I’ll leave it here. Have a good night!

Ah, I don’t understand what I’m talking about. And I’m not interested in an honest debate. Meanwhile, that video was wonderfully forthright and honest. OK, then.

23 Responses to “Ezra Klein Stands By Misleading Video”

  1. The Leopard cannot change it’s spots.

    Can you say Journ-o-list?

    They should have called it Spin Cycle but that was probably already taken.

    jakee308 (f1b953)

  2. Disappointing to be sure. But now we know.

    elissa (1aca9b)

  3. Patterico’s first Matt post made Hot Air.

    elissa (1aca9b)

  4. it’s lie upon lie
    the juicebox mafia kids
    so unexpected

    Colonel Haiku (5e29e1)

  5. It is a complete mystery to me why Jeff Bezos did not want to spend $10+ million to fund the revolutionary new media venture of these Juiceboxsplainers.

    smh

    daleyrocks (bf33e9)

  6. And the AoSHQ.

    *what’s that humming sound I hear?*

    It’s the Ezra-Rotor.

    We should hook him up to a generator. Easy 5kw.

    jakee308 (f1b953)

  7. the amount of debt failmerica has incurred, it is too many

    there’s no way this loser-assed country can ever pay this money back

    happyfeet (8ce051)

  8. once again Frey shows
    he’s one cool cucumber and
    Better than Ezra

    Colonel Haiku (5e29e1)

  9. 7- Political correctness is no way to run a country.

    mg (31009b)

  10. dishonesty is the one constant of the left.

    they lie about everything, even if the truth would suffice.

    redc1c4 (abd49e)

  11. Ezra speaks Austrian.
    Or something.

    Elephant Stone (6a6f37)

  12. UPDATE x2: Klein’s latest response:

    I don’t think you actually understand the dispute in the 2011 post – or perhaps in the video. Debt the government owes itself is debt it has to manage. But it doesn’t have the same effects, for all kinds of reasons, as public debt. There’s a reason when cbo does this it uses public debt.

    http://www.cbo.gov/publication/45010

    The video is about the effects of our debt load – which is to say, the effects of primarily of the Feds perception of our debt load, and of the markets perception of the Feds perception. Those effects, as watched by fed, by cbo, and others are based on public debt. As Matt says, the fed is the key actor here, and when bernanke talks about our debt, he also refers to cbo calculations of public debt:

    http://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/testimony/bernanke20130522a.htm

    All of which is to say that this is the right measure to be using and that doesn’t take away from my 2011 post on a different kind of debt question at all. And even if it did, the video is by Matt, not me.

    I’ve tried in these emails to clearly lay out my take on the video because I want you to see that we’re trying to get this stuff right. But I can see from your posts that you don’t really want to hear it – you want to play a game of gotcha with me, and whip up your folks, which is of course your right. So I’ll leave it here. Have a good night!

    Ah, I don’t understand what I’m talking about. And I’m not interested in an honest debate. Meanwhile, that video was wonderfully forthright and honest. OK, then.

    Patterico (c29bec)

  13. Patterico, there is a good faith argument to be made that the total debt is different from debt held by public …

    But

    Its an argument that has to actually be made.
    Not hidden.

    SPQR (768505)

  14. just more deception
    more of the mendacity
    Libs are not honest

    Colonel Haiku (57b3ff)

  15. youngster Ezra Klein
    cuz he’s a JuiceBox Hero
    got scales in his eyes

    Colonel Haiku (57b3ff)

  16. Ezra, if you’re reading this, I admit I don’t understand the concept of your new venture. But it’s in its early stages and you do have the ability to make this thing better. Don’t let your youthful pride take over the business decisions from your brain.

    elissa (1aca9b)

  17. we laugh at Klein and Yglesias, but never forget their whole stock in trade is deception, hence the journolist,

    narciso (3fec35)

  18. The point here is getting belabored.

    Yes, some of the national debt is owed to the SSTF and perhaps other smaller funds. The rest is owed to the public or to foreigners. Yup. Got it.

    Public debt < National debt. Yup, got it, too. Some people conflate the two. They shouldn't. Fine. But is it really worth all this typing?

    Kevin M (b11279)

  19. I do agree that their distinction, which appears to be that the feds can default on cheat the SSTF with less fallout is strained. At best.

    Kevin M (b11279)

  20. But I can see from your posts that you don’t really want to hear it – you want to play a game of gotcha with me, and whip up your folks, which is of course your right.

    Mr. Klein, as a general point, this folk does not get whipped up. And if this reader felt P was about getting readers whipped up, I would not be here. Not only is this childish and patronizing, it also infers that P’s readers are not capable of drawing their own conclusions based upon their own examination of the issue. Instead, you seem to think we are here, waiting for him to come ratchet up our emotions and get us all whipped up into a frenzy or something. I find it telling that you have such a negative view of readers. Rather than assuming we are challenged by the posts and curious enough to examine the issue and decide for ourselves, we are reduced to malleable, hysterics-in-waiting. As a general point, it’s not beneficial to view readers this way, especially if you hope to acquire more of them. Everyone loses when you do.

    Also, as a general point, you could be more generous.

    Would that be the same kind of generosity Mr. Yglesias’s showed P when he blocked him from his Twitter account, thus ending possible discussion? Instead of engaging him – which would have had the distinct double-benefit to your new enterprise in that, a) the public (future Vox readers?) would have been given a firsthand view of Vox’s openness to being questioned and challenged; a willingness to be corrected if warranted; drive and patience to convince through reason and fact; and most importantly, the absolute unwavering goal to be as accurate as possible. A lost opportunity.

    For future reference, readers here, and I would assume at your site as well, are generally understanding when mistakes are made. There may be political disagreement and even disagreement with a presentation of numbers, but almost everyone respects humility.

    Dana (9a8f57)

  21. The serial trolls are not pleased with you, Patterico.

    JD (5c1832)

  22. Hmm. This video is brought to you by GE. Any point in alerting them that they are sponsoring mendacious videos?

    ameryx (d8f147)

  23. Meh. Matt’s right. Most of the “intra-governmental” debt isn’t really debt, it’s a political gimmick to protect spending programs.

    Tip (fc3dd1)


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