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:
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.
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!
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.
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.
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:
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.