MSNBC’s Bernstein (Purposely?) Confuses Budget Deficit with National Debt

MSNBC contributor Jared Bernstein pulled off a deft sleight-of-hand on Tuesday’s PoliticsNation. It started after host Al Sharpton played a clip of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) calling for fiscal responsibility: “If Washington is serious about helping working families or serious about getting families out of work back to work, then it needs to get serious about our national debt. How do we do it? First we stop spending money we don't have.”

Bernstein, formerly Vice President Joe Biden’s chief economist, blasted Ryan for being “wrong on the numbers” (even though Ryan didn’t cite any numbers in the clip). He claimed:

 

The budget deficit as a share of GDP was 10 percent in 2009. Last I looked, it was 4 percent headed down to 3 percent. That's the largest four-year decline in the budget deficit since the mid 1950s, so he’s completely off about that.  
 

That was very sly on Bernstein’s part. Ryan said we need to get serious about our national debt, which has risen from $10.6 trillion when President Obama took office to $17.5 trillion today. That’s an increase of 65 percent. But instead of addressing the debt, Bernstein commented on the federal budget deficit, which is a year-to-year measurement of how much more the government spent than what it took in in revenue.

Our deficit has indeed fallen since 2009 – but it had a long way to fall. According to Factcheck.org, the 2009 deficit as a percentage of GDP was the highest figure since World War II. Deficits over the past 60 years had averaged only 2.4 percent of GDP, but in 2009 it was 10.1 percent. Even this year’s deficit is still higher than the 3.2 percent of GDP that we saw in 2008, the year before Obama took office.

Bernstein surely knows the difference between the national debt and the budget deficit. Shame on him for trying to conflate the two.

Below is a transcript of the exchange:

 

AL SHARPTON: Let me ask you this, Jared. Paul Ryan justifies slashing the safety net by claiming that spending is out of control. Listen to this.

[begin tape]

PAUL RYAN: If Washington is serious about helping working families or serious about getting families out of work back to work, then it needs to get serious about our national debt. How do we do it? First we stop spending money we don't have.

[end tape]

SHARPTON: I mean, give me your response to that point.

JARED BERNSTEIN: Look, it is patently wrong on the numbers. They call Paul Ryan a numbers guy. He gets them wrong as often as not. The budget deficit as a share of GDP was 10 percent in 2009. Last I looked, it was 4 percent headed down to 3 percent. That's the largest four-year decline in the budget deficit since the mid 1950s, so he’s completely off about that. And almost 80 percent of those cuts have come from the spending side, not the revenue side.

SHARPTON: But Karen, when you look at the other side of it, under President Obama, the deficit has fallen year after year. I mean, new projections this week show it's falling again in 2014 to less than half of what it was just two years ago.



KAREN FINNEY: That's exactly right. And it is exactly what the president has been talking about all along in terms of a balanced approach, in terms of let's make investments, but we can also be mindful of our deficits, we can be mindful of spending. But you know what, the Republicans were just not interested in that. I mean, they have this fairy tale that they like to tell, and it's particularly offensive when you consider that Paul Ryan himself benefitted from Social Security as a young man and now wants to, you know, cut that kind of program for young people -- for people in this country who might also find themselves in the very same situation that he found himself in.

BERNSTEIN: Just a quick comment about that. Look, I understand the need for a balanced approach to getting on a stable budget path. I talk about that a lot. In the near term, we have actually cut our budget deficits too quickly. And it's undermined economic growth at a time when we actually need fiscal support to help grow employment right now.

SHARPTON: Well, we do need to grow employment, but I think my point was that as they do all of these attacks on the president, the facts show -- the numbers show the deficit has gone down under him. I was addressing that narrow point. Karen Finney and Jared Bernstein, thank you both for your time tonight.

Paul Bremmer
Paul Bremmer is a Media Research Center News Analysis Division intern.