Patterico's Pontifications

3/27/2014

The Wire on the Misleading Klein/Yglesias Voxsplainer on the Debt

Filed under: General — Patterico @ 10:46 am

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.

. . . .

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.”

He’s 11.

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.

40 Responses to “The Wire on the Misleading Klein/Yglesias Voxsplainer on the Debt”

  1. Ding.

    Patterico (c29bec)

  2. On the otehr hand, somebody who doesn’t know what the “national debt” and the “public debt” is, and that the usual figure talked about is the $17 billion one, probably wouldn’t have any idea what $12 trillion or $17 trillion means or why and if it matters.

    Sammy Finkelman (2c707f)

  3. I just explained the Social Security trust fund and the national debt to my 11-year-old. He gets it.

    I then showed him the video. As Yglesias intoned: “The United States’s national debt is 12.5 trillion dollars,” Matthew said: “no it’s not.”

    He’ll go far.

    Patterico (c29bec)

  4. It seems to me that the best explanation for the use of the term “public debt” was that Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias were trying to low ball the number.

    Sammy Finkelman (2c707f)

  5. 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.”

    He’s 11.

    That’s my boy!

    It’s good that he understands the difference, since it is he and his sister who will be absolutely screwed by our irresponsibility. High unemployment, high taxes, reduced services — it’s an awful state of affairs we are going to bequeath to them.

    JVW (9946b6)

  6. Yglesias and Klein had essentially two choices in responding to you:

    1. Thanks, Patterico. You’re right. Although Matt didn’t mean to mislead (as is shown by his correct graphic), the voiceover was wrong. Matt’s preparing a corrected version now.

    2. [Well, #2 is basically what they DID do.]

    They chose … poorly.

    Had your critique come instead from, say, The New Republic, I’m guessing #1 would have been more likely in response.

    But no, you’re a subhuman conserrrrrrrvative and must only be patted on the head and sent on your way.

    Mitch (341ca0)

  7. Those are the college students who can’t name a single US Senator.

    Mike K (cd7278)

  8. It didn’t seem like a very tough argument to grasp. But as I said on one of the other threads, Klein and Yglesias never struck me as the sharpest tools in the shed.

    Steve57 (a017ec)

  9. What a great kid, Patterico.

    DRJ (a83b8b)

  10. Klein and Yglesias are sharp enough, it’s their used car salesman ethics and lack of commitment to truth and accuracy that’s lacking.

    ropelight (9a5314)

  11. People who think “the end justifies the means” truly believe that “the end justifies the means”. It’s really that simple a justification for everything our friends on the Left do and say.

    elissa (1aca9b)

  12. I’m sure after the election Klein and Ynot will be all about accuracy in reporting—maybe…nah!

    Amalgamated Cliff Divers, Local 157 (379e8e)

  13. Kudos to your kid, but one need not be so precocious to see through Yglesias.

    Even a borderline 11 year old today can search for it and find http://www.usdebtclock.org/ – it’s the top result.

    Fortunately for Ezra and Matty, the average leftist college student is somewhat dumber than the average 11 year old. Their approach is essentially the same as Klein’s at his old Wonkblog, except with animation.

    Klein kept throwing out charts and figures at a rate too fast for any but the most dedicated student of numbers to process, leaving the impression that he must surely know what he’s talking about. Actually, he just relies on an old sales adage: “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit!”

    If Klein were such an expert as he puts himself up to be, ObamaCare would be a fantastic success right now. Because he spent the better part of six years proving how great it was going to be and how all the reservations were completely without foundation.

    But he is no expert. Like Yglesias, he is just another lying leftist propagandist.

    Estragon (ada867)

  14. Just a couple of years ago, a Republican and Democrat Senator released a study that held that the debt and liabilities of the US government was close to $59 trillion (while all the property in the US was worth $56 trillion).

    Neo (d1c681)

  15. I like the approach, Rico, identify an abuser, target them, and isolate them.

    gary gulrud (e2cef3)

  16. Which makes me wonder – why do we have taxes if the government can’t run out of dollars?

    Neo (d1c681)

  17. “Which makes me wonder – why do we have taxes if the government can’t run out of dollars?”

    Neo – Hold that thought! The government could raise the minimum wage to $1,000 per hour, keep tax rates where they are now, and since most economists don’t believe raising the minimum wage costs jobs according to Obama, tax receipts should skyrocket, allowing us to have guns and butter and pay down the debt.

    Win Win or WTF!

    On the other hand, if you think about how the government actually creates money, you might get worried.

    daleyrocks (bf33e9)

  18. Why do you guys have to make the availability of money sound so complex ?
    I just like to go the park and pick it off of trees.

    Elephant Stone (6a6f37)

  19. ES – I like the Green Shoots growing from the ground better.

    daleyrocks (bf33e9)

  20. Sure, let’s give them some real power.

    http://minx.cc/?post=348164

    gary gulrud (e2cef3)

  21. Gotta wonder, can anyone in DC read?

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-11-25/obamacare-fiasco-erodes-government-as-problem-solver-idea.html

    Now young Master Ryan is bleating that Amnesty is inevitable.

    Lots of things are inevitable.

    gary gulrud (e2cef3)

  22. One is supposed to give them another chance.

    narciso (3fec35)

  23. “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.”
    that’s what these young quacksoakers depend on. A public so irredeemably stupid that they don’t know any better… nor do they care to know.

    Colonel Haiku (c80820)

  24. you got teh silver
    You can have ferret Krugman
    cuz I got teh gold

    Colonel Haiku (c80820)

  25. I thought The Wire did a decent job. Matt and Ezra cannot be pleased with this type of publicity on their inaugural sail. Yesterday on one of the threads here my computer made a typo and called it “Voxpainer”. Upon further reflection maybe that was a pretty descriptive and accurate typo.

    elissa (1aca9b)

  26. My son Matthew responded: “Isn’t it $17 trillion?”

    Awesome.

    That’s all it takes to break the spell the MSM has over most people. That’s why all this hopelessness many of us, myself included, feel about the financial state of this society is missing something major about how fragile the left’s scheme really is. It all depends on ignorance that the information age makes more and more easily pierced.

    Dustin (303dca)

  27. Yes, it’s a new guy, not Phillip Bump, who specializes in obfuscation, there’s some of that in the comment section though,

    narciso (3fec35)

  28. 22. The toxic husk isn’t much to work with.

    When contemplating a merger one looks for synergies with a rump, knowing that a fire sale of most of the acquired ‘assets’ is certain.

    I would argue this acquisition cannot begin to pay for itself.

    gary gulrud (e2cef3)

  29. Maybe Ezra and Matty are fans of Murray Rothbard like Milhouse and have swallowed that kool-aid about repudiating public debt and that’s why they focused on the smaller amount.

    daleyrocks (bf33e9)

  30. The crime here seems far bigger than you say. The missing debt is, if I’m not mistaken, mostly the Social Security Trust Fund. The trust fund that many conservatives say doesn’t really exist and is a figment of accounting. Liberals say that is ridiculous it is real US Govt debt, etc. I understand that argument even with I sympathize with the former more. But in this video Yglesias is treating that debt like it doesn’t exist. How can it be an asset in the Trust Fund if it doesn’t exist?

    nw11 (77883c)

  31. 30. That’s a thought. The Fed is sitting on $4 Trillion and rising in junk. Obviously they cannot sell the 10-year T-Bills, although a strong market exists this minute that fact obtains because they’re buying.

    Who knows what mortgage securities backed by 20% or more in foreclosed and zombie properties might sell for and be snapped up by some hedge, like Orange County. Ten cents, 20 on the dollar?

    But that doesn’t even address the pension and entitlement meltdown in our near and mid-term future. People will eventually not see returned what they put into government ‘investment’.

    Clearly Congress and the Executive are planning on default default.

    gary gulrud (e2cef3)

  32. as with the Post piece on the Koch’s, I suppose they were ‘trying to start a conversation’, but it was too stupid by half,

    narciso (3fec35)

  33. Give that 11-year-old an extra scoop of ice cream.

    sierra (d537c7)

  34. daleyrocks, to continue along our conversation earlier about money growing on trees, I just want to clarify that I thought that’s what they meant when they referred to a “cash crop.”
    Or whatever.

    Elephant Stone (6a6f37)

  35. By the way, the Wire gets this wrong: “public debt” is the same as “national debt” and different from “debt held by the public.” Look at the Treasury document in my original post on this to see how they define it.

    Patterico (9c670f)

  36. What I don’t think people fully appreciate is that the amount of Social Security trust fund bonds that might be redeemed in any given month is completely unpredictable at any distance out. It all depends on the number of people choosing to retire and the number of people actually working. When Social Security goes cash negative, they must redeem a bond. When they redeem that bond, Congress must either pay it out of the treasury (of which we have none) or issue new debt to pay the Social Security debt. In effect, they must make a payment on one credit card by putting the charge on a different credit card.

    The US has been getting around this by having the federal reserve print money and purchase US government debt. That has the effect of keeping interest rates artificially low. So actually, for a little while, the government can actually make money this way by retiring a 4% bond for debt at 2% or less. In effect the government reduces the debt burden on those bonds every time Social Security redeems one because CURRENTLY the interest on new debt is lower than the interest on social security debt.

    The problem comes when interest rate rise and the federal reserve is full of as much government debt as they can eat. We are now entering the fastest growing phase of when “baby boomers” are retiring. The Democrats are going to have to figure out a way to kill off old people or keep them working. A combination of Obamacare and minimum wage increases might just accomplish that.

    crosspatch (6adcc9)

  37. Comment by crosspatch (6adcc9) — 3/28/2014 @ 2:33 am

    The US has been getting around this by having the federal reserve print money and purchase US government debt.

    It always purchases debt on the secondary market, which may not mean very much.

    Sammy Finkelman (2c707f)

  38. His claim breaks down given that even if the government is lending money we gave it for our future use and calling its own, we are still owed it. Liberals shake payment reductions and various other refinements on social security and the like as though it was the boogie man, so I don’t really see them going away, at least not due to their efforts. Discounting them is unreasonable, when you use their disappearance in your argument. More unreasonable, those payments will grow with time, given inflation and cost of living adjustments, while the actual money in the accounts are evaporating as it isn’t accruing a rational amount of interest. If we assume that the government will at some time try to re-fill the money with tax money, and liberals will, if they don’t just absorb the program outright, then that would behave the same way as interest, with the interest rate still determined by the market. In any case, discounting those funds simply because it is the government moving it between accounts is dishonest, and if he were trying to make an honest argument he would not have done so. That said, I don’t really think he was trying to make an honest argument, he was trying to reassure people who are starting to notice.. hey, 17 trillion dollars actually sounds like kind of a lot, and perhaps confuse people who know nothing.

    Davem (588ad8)

  39. 18. Comment by Elephant Stone (6a6f37) — 3/27/2014 @ 2:27 pm

    Why do you guys have to make the availability of money sound so complex ?

    I just like to go the park and pick it off of trees.

    It’s much more complicated than that, done though a patented or secret process.

    Correction: it is not made of wood:

    http://www.moneyfactory.gov/uscurrency/theproductionprocess.html

    The ordinary paper that consumers use throughout their everyday life such as newspapers, books, cereal boxes, etc, is primarily made of wood pulp; however, United States currency paper is composed of 75% cotton and 25% linen. This is what gives United States currency its distinct look and feel.

    Sammy Finkelman (3bf07f)


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