If the editors of Time magazine hoped to generate some conversation with its provocative new cover story, they succeeded beautifully. Whether it was the kind of conversation the editors were looking for is a very different question.
For those who haven’t seen it, Time’s cover says, “Dear Reader, you owe $42,998.12. That’s what every American man, woman, and child would need to pay to erase the $13.9 trillion US debt. Make America solvent again.”
I’ll gladly concede that issues like these are complex, and for much of the public, confusing. Rhetoric about the budget deficit and national debt, complete with numbers so big they’re hard to count all of the zeroes, can sound terrifying. But this dynamic is made worse when lazy journalism paints a wildly misleading picture.
It’s hard to even know where to start, but Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum did a nice job cutting to the chase.
You will never have to pay down this debt. Nor will your children. Or your grandchildren. Just forget about it.And if we ever do have to pay some of it down? We’ll get to pay it off over decades, just like any other debt. And the rich will pay a bigger share than you. But I guess “You might someday owe $145 per year” doesn’t make a very good magazine cover.
Quite right. Time suggests the debt should be erased, which is wrong. It suggests if we did try to pay off the debt, the costs would be distributed evenly among all Americans, which is also wrong. It suggests the United States is insolvent, which is breathtakingly wrong.
Dear editors, if you don’t know what “solvent” means, try not to use it on your cover.
Slate’s Jordan Weissmann responded to the Time article by noting, “You actually need a special, pressure-resistant diving suit to reach these depths of stupidity.” The Washington Post’s Matt O’Brien added, “The idea that the U.S. government is insolvent right now is so perniciously stupid. I can’t even.”
The harsh criticisms strike me as more than fair under the circumstances – Time’s editors and publishers must know better, and they owe their readers an explanation for this – but I’d add just one additional point.
Yes, Time’s coverage of the national debt represents a failure on policy, economic, fiscal, and rhetorical levels, but there’s also a political angle to all of this. Republican candidates – up and down the ballot – will spend the next several months arguing that the United States is facing a terrible crisis because of the size of the national debt. They will use a combination of fear and confusion to tell voters that policymakers have no choice but to slash social-insurance programs and public investments in order to protect America’s children from trillions and trillions of dollars in crushing debt.
Those candidates will be wrong, but they’ll nevertheless have a Time magazine cover to use as a prop to sell the electorate on a bogus idea.
When news organizations paint a misleading picture, that’s a problem. When news organizations paint a misleading picture in the middle of a presidential election about a major issue that can be exploited in ridiculous ways, that’s worse.