The Wire addresses yesterday’s brouhaha over the misleading Ezra Klein/Matt Yglesias Voxsplainer that claimed:
The United States’s national debt is 12.5 trillion dollars.
The Wire cites criticisms by me and Erick Erickson.
Ezra Klein’s explanatory journalism website Vox.com hasn’t officially launched yet, but that hasn’t prevented it from drawing the ire of conservative pundits, and the latest outrage – coming from right-wing bloggers Eri[c]k Erickson of RedState and Patterico – has Klein admitting the need for more explaining on his site. Which maybe isn’t the best sign.
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Yglesias gets into trouble a mere 5 seconds in. The video’s title card reads: “How scary is the US public debt?” but Yglesias says “national debt.” Conservatives were quick to point out that these are two different things. U.S. public debt refers to only debt held by the public, while the national debt encompasses all debt, adding in intergovernmental holdings, which is basically money the government owes itself. The issue is that the two measurements give you two different totals: $12.5 trillion and $17.5 trillion, respectively. Even though Yglesias says national debt, the video uses the $12.5 trillion figure to make its point.
The author of the Wire piece understands my argument a lot better than Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias pretend to:
Patterico makes the point that the only people who’d recognize the difference between public and national debt are people already familiar with the subject, and thus wouldn’t need the video’s basic explanation. Anyone in need of the kind of explanatory journalism Vox is looking to provide would simply assume the two are the same, since the video seems to use them interchangeably.
Yup, that is exactly my argument.
Which brings up a good question: just how effective (and ideological) is Vox’s explanatory journalism going to be? In an email to Patterico, Klein wrote, “If we did have an article we’d probably spend some time explaining the difference.”
Whether or not you think the video was misleading, the fact that Klein admits an explanation deficiency on an explanatory video doesn’t look great. Between this and the Nate Silver/Paul Krugman feud, the wunderkinds are finding the rollout is tougher than the startup.
By the way, in an effort to find out how intelligent but less informed people might view the video, I asked my children what they would think if a video said: “the United States’s national debt is $12.5 trillion” accompanied by a graphic that said: “debt held by the public: $12.5 trillion.” What would they actually think the U.S. national debt is, based on that? My son Matthew responded: “Isn’t it $17 trillion? That’s what it was two weeks ago.”
That’s my boy!
Unfortunately, most twenty-somethings (and even older folks) these days lack the knowledge of current events possessed by my 11-year-old. Those are the people most likely to be misled by Yglesias’s false equation of debt held by the public and total debt.