" 'Scary' fact about our national debt. In 1791 it was $75 million. Today, it rises by that amount in about an hour."
Adam Hasner on Tuesday, May 10th, 2011 in a tweet
Adam Hasner claims debt increases by $75 million an hour
Adam Hasner, a Republican U.S. Senate candidate and former Florida House Majority leader, is a big fan of Twitter. He uses his account (@adamhasner) as a campaign tool to chat with supporters and flaunt his conservative credentials.
It's not unexpected that he used the venue to sound off on a popular GOP target: the country's ever-increasing national debt.
The debt exceeds $14 trillion.
Hasner tweeted at least three statements on the topic from May 10 to May 12, 2011.
• "Scary" fact about our national debt. In 1791 it was $75 million. Today, it rises by that amount in about an hour www.attackthedebt.com
• "Scary" fact #2 Post WW2 national debt was 122% of GDP, by 1970 it was down to 38%, now it's 95% of GDP www.attackthedebt.com
• Debt more than doubled since '00, increased 41% in just 3 years under Pres Obama. Both parties to blame. www.attackthedebt.com
"Scary" facts, huh? Labels such as that practically beg for closer scrutiny.
We decided to investigate the first claim, which required a little arithmetic. Does the debt really grow at $75 million an hour today?
We also took a quick look at claims No. 2 and 3, just to be thorough. They were easy to verify through federal websites. For "Scary Fact #2," we looked at the Office of Management and Budget tables showing the debt as a percent of GDP. In 1946, the total federal debt was 121.7 percent of GDP. In 1970, it was 37.6 percent, and now (for 2010), it's 93.2 percent. Those are close enough to Hasner's numbers.
For his third claim, we checked the same link. From the end of fiscal year 2000 (Sept. 30, 2000) through fiscal year 2010 (Sept. 30, 2010), the total debt rose 140 percent, more than doubled, so Hasner's right on that part. We switched to the U.S. Department of the Treasury's website to check the change since Barack Obama became president because that site lists a daily amount for the debt. From inauguration day on Jan. 20, 2009, when the debt was $10.627 trillion, to May 12, when it was $14.308 trillion, the increase is about 35 percent. Not quite the 41 percent Hasner cites, but also close.
So let's go back to our fact-check on his first tweet.
The first part of this tweet is easy to check out. The Treasury Department website goes back to Jan. 1, 1791 -- the earliest date available -- when the historical debt outstanding was $75,463,476.52.
So, Hasner was right about that too.
But how did he determine the rate at which the debt increases today? We asked Rick Wilson, his Republican campaign consultant, to explain the math.
It turns out Hasner, um, borrowed all three claims from CBS MoneyWatch.com story posted in November 2010, called "18 Scary US Debt Facts."
The claim we're checking from Hasner is the first to appear in Jill Schlesinger's story. She provides a link to the website of Ed Hall, who runs an online Debt Clock and appears to be the original source of this factoid (his debt clock was not working as of May 19, 2011, and the FAQ link was also inaccessible at times).
Hall, a software engineer from California, said he started the website in 1995 as a lesson in Web programming. He couches his statement a little bit more than either the MoneyWatch story or Hasner by adding "or so" at the end.
In an e-mail, Hall wrote: "That number is out of date (it was correct at the time I wrote it) but now the National Debt rises by about $165 million per hour. I get this by dividing the average daily debt increase over the past few years ($4.02 billion) by 24."
Hasner tweeted his claim on May 10, 2011. That's important because he says the debt rises by $75 million in about an hour "today."
We looked at the rate at which the debt increased from April 10 to May 10, 2011.
To do that, we used very precise numbers provided by the Treasury's "Debt to the Penny and Who Holds it" feature, which allows you to look up the daily total U.S. public debt for any date since March 31, 2005. We'll provide the long numbers so you can follow along.
For April 10, 2011, that number was $14,265,383,134,019.53
For May 10, 2011, it was $14,331,522,797,881.61
The difference between those figures, which tells us how much the debt grew over 30 days, is $66,139,663,862.08.
Divide that by 30 and you learn the debt increased by $2,204,655,462 a day. That sum divided by 24 is $91,860,644.25, which exceeds Hasner's figure of about $75 million an hour.
For more context, we applied the same method to Oct. 18, 2010, and Nov. 18, 2010 (the day the CBS MoneyWatch story was published).
Oct. 18: $13,668,894,473,093.42
Nov. 18: $13,788,455,142,118.05
Using the same method, but dividing by 31 days instead of 30, we found the hourly debt increase to be $160,669,824. That's closer to the amount gleaned with Hall's method.
As you see, the rate the debt grows can vary month to month and year to year. It depends on how big the budget deficit is at any point in time. (The debt, as explained here, is the sum of all past deficits.)
Hasner relied on a months-old news story, without attributing it, for his string of "scary" debt tweets. That posed a problem for part of his first claim, that the hourly increase of the debt is $75 million. His message -- that the debt is huge and growing rapidly -- is accurate, but he would have achieved a more up-to-date total had he done his own math. He is off by millions of dollars. We rate his claim Half True.