How to think about the national debt

It’s quiet. Too quiet. So let’s see if Dean Baker has something to say. Heres the first:

NYT Joins Efforts to Scare Public About the Size of Government Debt

Peter Peterson, the billionaire Wall Street investment banker, is devoting more than $1 billion to a campaign to whip up fears about budget deficits in order to force cuts in Social Security and Medicare. It almost looks as though the NYT has joined the effort.

It printed an article today that uses a measure of government debt that is explicitly designed to be misleading. The article reports on the debt of Greece, but then adds in a discussion of the debts of other countries, including the United States.

The calculations are misleading because they compare future obligations over many decades to the current year’s GDP. The honest way to do this calculation is to compare future obligations to projected GDP over the time horizon in which these obligations will be met. However, this calculation would produce a much lower ratio. (The debt in the case of the U.S. would be around 6 percent of GDP.)

It is also worth noting that in the case of the United States, the vast majority of the projected deficit is due to exploding health care costs. If the country fixed its health care system it would instead have large surpluses.

—Dean Baker

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