Under Obama, the national debt "has been reduced every year for the last five years."

Al Sharpton on Tuesday, November 12th, 2013 in a segment on MSNBC's "PoliticsNation"

Al Sharpton criticizes Sarah Palin for comparing slavery and national debt

Rev. Al Sharpton confused deficits and debt during his Nov. 12, 2013, show.

The Rev. Al Sharpton used his MSNBC show PoliticsNation Tuesday to criticize former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for recently likening the national debt to slavery.

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

* estimated

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.)"

Our ruling

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.