No, We Don't Have a $14 Trillion Deficit

Moneybox
A blog about business and economics.
Feb. 11 2013 9:41 AM

Glenn Thrush Overestimates Budget Deficit by Over 1600 Percent

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President Barack Obama delivers last year's State of the Union address on January 24, 2012 in Washington, DC.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

If you want an example of the real drivers of deficit hysteria in Washington, you could not do better than to read Glenn Thrush's State of the Union curtain raiser in Politico:

Some Democrats, including former Obama administration officials, have warned about overplaying his hand during the upcoming fiscal fight: Most of Obama’s positions enjoy fairly broad public support—but voters overwhelmingly say they want him to do more to deal with a deficit that is set to exceed $14 trillion by the end of the fiscal year.

Now, here's the thing: If the deficit really were scheduled to reach $14 trillion in fiscal year 2013, sensible people would be freaking out. But the actual projection is that the deficit will equal $845 billion. As the old saw goes, all the numbers that end in "illion" sound the same to people. But Thrush is overstating the deficit by about 1600 percent here. In other words, the actual deficit is about $13,155,000,000,000 smaller than Thrush thinks it is.

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What's remarkable here isn't the occurrence of an error in the article. It's not a piece about fiscal policy, and Thrush isn't a budget specialist. It's how little difference the error makes in practice. The people who are very upset about the "$14 trillion" deficit aren't going to become less upset about it when they realize it's only $845 billion, anymore than the people worried about "out of control" government spending become less worried when they learn that government spending has been flat for almost three years.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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