Breaking News on the Federal Debt: 33 is a Bigger Number than Any Smaller Number!!

Today's New York Times includes a news article under this actual (that is, not a parody) headline: "U.S. National Debt Tops $33 Trillion for First Time."  Why would anyone suspect that that might in fact be a parody?  Because it means nothing to announce that federal debt has exceeded a number for the first time, any more than it would make sense to say breathlessly that we are all older right now than we were yesterday.  Time passes, the US economy grows to a new level of GDP "for the first time," the population and the work force grow to levels that we are only seeing "for the first time," even low levels of inflation lead to price levels that we are only seeing "for the first time," and on and on.  That is how upward trends -- most definitely including sustainable upward trends -- work.

To readers who are having a sense of deja vu: No, it is not in your mind.  Last October, I wrote a two-part Verdict column and a complementary Dorf on Law column in which I mercilessly (and, I readily concede, gleefully) mocked an article in The Times that ran under this headline: "U.S. National Debt Tops $31 Trillion for First Time."  The editors did not even bother to change the phrasing for today's headline!  As I noted at the time, the Times article gave absolutely no reason why anyone should be worried about passing the $31 trillion mark, any more than they should worry about having passed, say, $21.343 trillion.  There is nothing meaningful about the number 31, either in economics or politics, so I speculated sarcastically that maybe there was something about October having 31 days.  And now 33?  Maybe The Times's reporter is a big fan of Rolling Rock beer?

Last year's entry in the debt-panic-stoking sweepstakes was co-authored by two Times reporters, Jim Tankersley and Alan Rappeport, whereas this year's was solely reported by the latter writer.  In the interim, the former has gone all in on providing at best misleading articles about the debt ceiling, so his absence from today's byline does not give me confidence that he has seen the light.  It thus appears that The Times has decided to keep in its employ at least two journalists whose job description includes something like this: "Scare people on a regular basis with sensationalistic, frenzied stories about fiscal doom, no matter the facts or the lack of newsworthiness."

Why does this matter?  The sub-headline makes it very clear: "The fiscal milestone comes as Congress is facing a new spending fight with a government shutdown looming."  So rather than talking about how Republicans in the House are violating their agreement from earlier this year (as part of temporarily resolving the debt ceiling crisis) to pass appropriations bills and thereby keep the government open, Rappeport and his editors are saying, "Well, ya know, it's not like the Republicans don't have a point.  Look at all that debt!!"

And Republicans run with this narrative.  I recently had the misfortune of watching a full interview of the extremist Republican performance artist Matt Gaetz of Florida, who appeared on Ari Melber's MSNBC show.  I had previously only seen short clips of Gaetz's particular brand of insanity via news clips and late night comedy shows (remember them?), so it was instructive -- though not worth the pain -- to be a firsthand witness to his petulant, adolescent, dishonest, grievance-filled series of rants.

Although it is a digression, I will note one illustrative example of Gaetz's delusional mindset.  He claims that there is a written document memorializing the concessions to which Kevin McCarthy agreed in January, which allowed McCarthy to become the House Speaker.  Melber asked why, if there is a written document, Gaetz does not simply release it for all to see.  Gaetz responded that fellow House extremist Chip Roy of Texas is holding Gaetz's copy, so he (Gaetz) cannot release it.  Melber sensibly asked what is stopping Gaetz from asking Roy to release it, and Gaetz said that Roy has it and can do what he wants (or not) with it.  Melber then gamely asked why Gaetz does not simply ask Roy to give back his (Gaetz's) own copy of the agreement that will prove that McCarthy is lying, so that Gaetz can release it.  Gaetz invoked his best whiny high school girl voice and said, "I already told you" that Roy had his copy.  The republic is in good hands.

Again, that particular bit of unscripted theater of the absurd is admittedly a digression from the main point of this column, which is that it matters when respected news organizations feed the anti-debt narrative.  The Gaetz interview is instructive for my argument here because, when it came to saying anything at all about actual policy matters (as opposed to intra-party squabbling), he ritualistically invoked the national debt as a reason to criticize Democrats.  It is now simply one of the things that conservatives say when they need to sound at least semi-serious.

Worse, even among the supposedly independent press, there is not the slightest attempt to explain why debt is bad.  Instead, people like Rappeport and Tankersley reinforce the gut feeling that debt is bad because debt is bad.  And even though the government is going to shut down in less than two weeks unless House Republicans get their act together, we are being told that "debt is a big number -- the biggest one yet!!" by someone who ought to be embarrassed by such simplistic thinking (but clearly is not).

As is standard in the debt-panic genre, the language is florid and ominous.  The first sentence of today's article by Rappeport includes the assertion that the new debt level is "a stark reminder of the country’s shaky fiscal trajectory."  Later, the article says that "the debt is on track to top $50 trillion by the end of the decade," citing a piece by Tankersley that appeared under the not-at-all-slanted headline: "The Debt-Limit Deal Suggests Debt Will Keep Growing, Fast."  (As I noted above, Tankersley is unbowed.)  He then cites a right-wing group of economists tied to Penn to claim that the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 will be more expensive than originally forecast.

Why will it be more expensive?  "[T]hanks to strong demand for the law’s generous clean energy tax credits."  Yet there is no consideration of whether, even if the upward cost revisions turn out to be true, that is money well spent or whether "our children and grandchildren" (who are always the supposed victims of today's "irresponsible" spending and borrowing) might in fact benefit from accelerated adoption of clean energy technology.  In this closed ecosystem of thinking, it continues to be true that debt is bad, just cuz.

No example is too trivial for these people, with Rappeport mentioning the one-year delay of a tax change that "was projected to raise about $8 billion in additional tax revenue over a decade."  The delay thus cost less than a billion (with a "b") dollars, while Rappeport is hyping tens of trillions (with a "t") of dollars, which means that we are talking about less than rounding error.

Why is all of this worth putting in The Times?  Recent actions have "heightened the sense of alarm among budget watchdog groups that fear that a fiscal crisis is approaching."  Cue the respectful stenographic rendering of a complaint from one of the roster of deficit-scold groups, including a quote that ends with -- you guessed it -- the claim that what is happening "will only continue to do damage to our kids and grandkids."  Again, not even the barest suggestion how that damage is supposed to occur, or whether there are other factors to take into account.

To be clear, I am not saying that I agree with any or all of the various spending-enhancing or revenue-losing moves that Rappeport lists.  I am saying, however, that one must assess each example by asking more probing questions than, "Does it raise the debt?"  And even when Rappeport tries to be "balanced," he shows his bias.  After quoting one Republican's repetition of the stale complaint that "[t]his town is addicted to spending other people’s money," Rappeport writes: "But the White House blamed Republicans on Monday for the bulging debt burden" (emphasis added).  I happen to agree with the ensuing quote from the Biden Administration (which, among other things, pointed out that "Congressional Republicans want to double down on trickle-down"), but even this is reported from within the debt-is-just-plain-bad mindset.

After offering yet another out-of-context factoid -- "the deficit ... was $1.5 trillion for the first 11 months of the fiscal year, a 61 percent increase from the same period a year ago" -- Rappeport covers his journalistic ass bases, quoting Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen's correct assessment that she is "comfortable with the nation’s fiscal course because interest costs as a share of the economy remain[] manageable."  Yet he cannot leave it at that, immediately adding: "However, she suggested that it was important to be mindful of future spending.  'The president has proposed a series of measures that would reduce our deficits over time while investing in the economy, and this is something we need to do going forward.'"

And scene.  Note that there is absolutely nothing in the article that even begins to justify the headline and lead/lede focusing on the "for the first time" level of debt.  There is not even the hint of a suggestion that Rappeport knows that there is a difference between gross and net debt (or that he knows why that difference matters), where the latter on September 15 was $26.2 trillion rather than $33.0 trillion.  But hey, maybe 26.2 is also a magic number.  That is the length in miles of a marathon, so that could mean something, right?  And of course, everything is reported in raw dollars rather than as percentages of national income, making them even more misleading.

At least the article last year decrying the Halloween-level gross debt number included arguments as to why debt might be a problem.  As I pointed out in my responses, even their lone non-frivolous argument was simply wrong; but D+ for effort.  Now, pervasive arrogance, laziness, or both means that The Times is comfortable publishing a piece that simply reinforces the conventional view of debt with only nominal acknowledgment (at the very end of the piece) that this is not Simply the Truth.

It is not as though these are slow news days, with members of the press casting about for some whiff of a story to follow.  Their time should be spent on many matters of actual consequence.  Even so, they published the piece, which means that we now know that the (gross) debt passed $33 trillion, that it will continue to rise, that some things that might have made it rise at a different rate might not happen, that Republicans are using this to justify shutting down the government, and that even those who are not panicking admit that it is "important to be mindful of future spending."  On that latter point, as the kids used to say, "No duh."

I am a big believer in the importance and power of a free press, so I must say that it would be nice if the people in charge of the leading newspaper in the world did not so consistently try to prove that they will continue to happily wield their power irresponsibly.