"Our national debt is as low as it has been since World War II."

Goldie Taylor on Tuesday, November 12th, 2013 in an interview with Al Sharpton on MSNBC's "PoliticsNation"

MSNBC contributor Goldie Taylor says national debt is at its lowest point since World War II

MSNBC contributor Goldie Taylor joined the Rev. Al Sharpton on MSNBC’s PoliticsNation on Tuesday to criticize former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for comparing the national debt to slavery.

Sharpton said Palin’s comments were not only offensive but wrong on the facts, as the national debt "has been reduced every year for the last five years under this president."

Taylor responded, "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."

We thought their claims were ripe for a PunditFact review.

We rated Sharpton’s comment False, and for a pretty basic reason. Sharpton mixed up the deficit with the debt. The budget words sort of sound alike, but they’re not interchangeable.

The deficit is a yearly measure of revenues against spending, and the debt is the sum of all past deficits minus any annual surpluses.

Taylor made a similar mix-up as she misconstrued a larger talking point we’ve heard from the Obama administration this year.

The deal with debt

Taylor’s statement is off no matter how you slice it.

* In raw dollars: Gross federal debt is at an historic high of $17.1 trillion, according to the U.S. Treasury Department. When President Barack Obama took office in 2009, it was $10.6 trillion. (The debt grew by $4.9 trillion under President George W. Bush. Under Obama, it is poised to double.)

* As a percentage of the national economy, commonly measured as the Gross Domestic Product: The debt as a percentage of GDP reached 103 percent in 2012 after a steady climb since 2009, according to tables from the White House Office of Management and Budget. The debt as a percentage of GDP had not been that high since 1947, when it was 110.3 percent.

The story is the same for the 2012 federal deficit, which fell to 7 percent of GDP but was larger than any year since the end of World War II. In fact, as University of California Berkeley law professor Alan Auerbach pointed out, the federal government had budget surpluses while Bill Clinton was president.

"Whether you look at the debt or the deficit, it is clearly false that the figures are smaller than anything since WWII," said Princeton University economist Harvey Rosen.

‘What I should have said’

On Twitter, Taylor told us she should have said, "The deficit is falling at its fastest rate since WWII."

That statement, borrowed from Obama team talking points, would have been more accurate. PolitiFact previously reviewed Obama’s claim that "our deficits are falling at the fastest rate in 60 years" and rated it True.

The deficit was 10.1 percent of GDP in 2009, but fell in 2012 to 7 percent -- a decline of 3.1 percentage points. The period between 1946 and 1949, when the deficit as a percentage of GDP fell 7.4 percentage points, produced the only bigger decline.

Experts have criticized Obama’s point as misleading. The recent drop is happening because the deficit was so large to begin with that it had more room to fall. The government ran the largest budget deficits relative to the GDP during 2009 and 2012 than since 1946, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, and this is causing the debt "to soar."

The debt’s long-term growth "is very worrisome given the risks it poses and the time needed to reverse the upward trajectory of debt," said Jason Peuquet, research fellow at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

And for all of the crowing about the reduced deficit, CBO expects it to increase again in the next decade due to spending on programs for our aging population, health costs, new subsidies to offset the cost of health insurance, and larger interest payments on the debt.

Our ruling

Taylor said, "Our national debt is as low as it has been since World War II," which is plainly incorrect.

The debt is as high as it’s ever been, in terms of real dollars, and it ticks up by the second. 

Taylor acknowledged her flub, tweeting us that she will work on "slowing things down a bit to make sure I get it right."

Her statement on PoliticsNation rates False.