Monday, July 28, 2014

How Paul Krugman Fudged the Truth on U.S. Debt

By Gene Epstein

Last week, I reported that the Congressional Budget Office's recently released "2014 Long-Term Budget Outlook" warned "the fiscal ship of state is in danger of hitting an iceberg" ("New Warning on U.S.'s Gathering Debt Storm," July 21). Readers asked me how New York Times columnist Paul Krugman could cite the same study and conclude that the agency's projections are "distinctly non-alarming" ("The Fiscal Fizzle," the New York Times, July 20).
The key difference is that Krugman reported only one of the estimates from the CBO for the possible trajectory of the debt-to-gross-domestic-product ratio between now and the late-2030s. He cited only the agency's "extended baseline" scenario, which put the ratio above 100% by the late 2030s from the current 74%. He did not mention that the CBO study also presented its "extended alternative fiscal scenario," which projected that by the late-2030s, the debt-to-GDP ratio would climb above 180%.
EVEN THE BASELINE SCENARIO, which assumes that "current laws governing taxes and spending will remain generally unchanged," can hardly be characterized as "distinctly non-alarming." It shows, for example, that if current laws aren't changed, the debt-to-GDP ratio will continue to climb, from 106% in 2039, to 126% by 2050, to 147% by 2060. By neglecting to mention this, Krugman manages to dismiss the scary number by pointing out that by 2039, the debt would be "no higher, as a percentage of GDP, than the debt America had at the end of World War II."
The CBO itself makes this comparison, but then points out that, unlike at the end of World War II, the debt would still be on an "upward path," a "trajectory [that] ultimately would be unsustainable."
But as mentioned, Krugman's main omission in his column was to leave out the far scarier extended alternative fiscal scenario, which puts the debt-to-GDP ratio at more than 180% by 2039. The omission gives readers the impression that the baseline was the CBO's only projected figure.

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