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But in doing so, Sharpton and pundit Goldie Taylor made a common mistake -- confusing the national debt with the deficit.
Here’s what Sharpton said: "I mean, first of all, slavery in the American context was based on race. So you can’t talk about slavery in American context without talking about race," said Sharpton, reacting to Palin’s defense that her comparison is not racist. "But second of all … the debt … by the way has been reduced every year for the last five years under this president."
Taylor then chimed in, "You know, our national debt is as low as it has been since World War II. And so the notion that our national debt is growing at some astronomical rate really is a misnomer."
In this case, Sharpton’s specific claim is wrong. The debt has risen each year in terms of dollar amount and as a share of the economy since 2007. And it will continue to increase this year, said Jason Peuquet, Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget research fellow.
On Jan. 20, 2009, when Obama took office, the country’s total outstanding debt was $10.6 trillion. It stood at $17.1 trillion as of Nov. 8, 2013, according to the Treasury Department’s "Debt to the Penny" calculator.
What Sharpton likely meant to say is that the deficit "has been reduced every year for the last five years." The deficit is the difference between what a government collects in revenues and spends in any one year. The debt is the accumulation of annual deficits minus any annual surpluses.
We’re not letting Sharpton off the hook for his words, especially because he should know the difference, but if he had said deficit he’d be closer to the truth.
The country started running a deficit instead of a surplus in 2002, at $159 billion. The recent run of deficits peaked in 2009 at $1.4 trillion, Obama’s first year in office.
Since then, it’s come down, and there are a couple of ways to count that.
One way is in sheer dollars, through historical tables from the White House Office of Management and Budget and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office:
2008: $458.6 billion deficit
2009: $1.413 trillion deficit
2010: $1.294 trillion deficit
2011: $1.299 trillion deficit
2012: $1.087 trillion deficit
2013*: $642 billion deficit
In this view, the deficit fell in 2010, 2012 and 2013, but increases in 2011.
By another measure -- the deficit as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product -- the deficit did fall four consecutive years. Not five, as Sharpton tried to indicate. Unlike in the current-dollar method, the deficit as a measure of GDP between 2010 and 2011 because GDP grew faster in that year, said Alan Auerbach, a University of California economics and law professor.
The deficit as a percentage of GDP shot up from 3 percent in 2008 to 10.1 percent in 2009. We turn again to data from White House Office of Management and Budget to look at the trend.
2008: 3.2 percent deficit
2009: 10.1 percent deficit
2010: 9 percent deficit
2011: 8.7 percent deficit
2012: 7 percent deficit
2013*: 6 percent deficit
Projections from the Congressional Budget Office show slightly different percentages, but the trend remains the same for those years. CBO, however, estimates the deficit will fall through 2015 but tick up again in 2016 and beyond.
"So, the deficit fell between 2009 and 2012," said Harvey Rosen, Princeton University economics professor, by email. "However, both figures are much bigger than anything since the early 70s (and I suspect since the late 1940s.)"
Sharpton said that the national debt "has been reduced every year for the last five years." Sharpton confused the downward trend in annual deficits with the debt, which is what he said on air and what Palin controversially likened to slavery.
We rate his claim False.
Email interview with Diana Rocco, MSNBC Politics Nation spokeswoman, Nov. 13, 2013
Email interview with Jason Peuquet, Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget research fellow, Nov. 13, 2013
Email interview with Alan Auerbach, professor of economics and law, University of California Berkeley, Nov. 13, 2013
Email interview with Harvey Rosen, professor of economics, Princeton University, Nov. 13, 2013
Email interview with Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic Policy Research, Nov. 13, 2013
Email interview with Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, Nov. 13, 2013
PolitiFact, "Obama says deficit is falling at fastest rate in 60 years," July, 25, 2013
PolitiFact New Hampshire, "Ayotte counts the amount of debt accrued by Presidents Bush, Obama," Nov. 1, 2013
PolitiFact Wisconsin, "Scott Walker says debt projected to double under Obama," Nov. 13, 2013
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