In Chapter 1, on page 12, this question is asked and then answered: “What is the difference between the annual deficit and the national debt?” In the book’s early drafts the answer started with something like “You would be surprised how many people cannot answer this question. Almost every week I see the word ‘debt’ used when the writer was clearly thinking ‘deficit’.” As the year 2011 progressed and the debt ceiling issue moved to the forefront, the frequency of these mistakes increased. But as one month led to the next, the number of pages in the book increased as well, so when it came time to delete sentences and paragraphs in order to get the book down to a readable length, I deleted the above quoted verbage.
I suppose some will think I am splitting semantic hairs here. Fair enough. But how are we to resolve our differences about these important issues if many of us are using the same words to mean different things? Some hairs are at the core of the problem. Some hairs are at the periphery. When core elements are confused by the No One’s of the world, no harm – no foul. But when “debt” and “deficit” are used interchangeably by influential folk, harm is done.
Here is one example of what I am talking about:
“If the president really wants to lead from the front, he should summon the Democratic and Republican leadership, along with all 12 members of the House-Senate deficit ‘supercommittee,’ to join him at Camp David and tell the world that they are not coming back without a Grand Bargain - one that offers some short-term jobs stimulus, a credible long-term debt reduction plan with entitlement cuts and tax reform that increases revenue.”
My guess is that Tom Friedman (NYT, 9/24/11) was thinking “deficit reduction plan”, not “debt reduction plan”. Those of you who read his column are in a better position to interpret his words than I am.