Limbaugh has a credibility deficit: mischaracterized U.S. fiscal shortfall


In response to a caller on the July 8 edition of The Rush Limbaugh Show who said she was "losing faith" in conservatives because of the state of the national debt, radio host Rush Limbaugh falsely claimed that the United States is "growing out of" the deficit and mischaracterized the relationship between the national debt, the federal deficit, and the gross domestic product (GDP) in an attempt to prove that America's fiscal shortfall is "not a big deal."

From the July 8 edition of The Rush Limbaugh Show:

CALLER: Rush. How can it not be -- you know when I didn't -- when I really started losing faith? I loved Bob Dole, and I respected him so much. But we --when we were still paying $220 billion a year in interest on our national debt.

LIMBAUGH: Hold it a second. You know, [caller's name], you don't even understand that. The deficit this year as a percentage of our gross domestic product is like somebody being -- somebody that earns [$]500 grand being in debt [$]50,000, or something close to that. It's not a big deal, and it's coming down. We're growing out of it. We grow out of every deficit we have. It's not a monster. It's not going to kill us. You are falling prey to talking points enunciated by ultra-liberals who do not have the best interest of this economy at heart anyway.

In fact, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the current federal deficit as of July 7 for fiscal year 2004 is $328 billion, "about $58 billion more than the shortfall recorded in the same period last year." Contrary to Limbaugh's assertion that "We're growing out of it [the deficit]," the CBO's most recent set of budget projections for fiscal years 2004 through 2014 -- published March 8, 2004 -- projected that this year's deficit will be $477 billion. This is more than $100 billion higher than the fiscal year 2003 figure of $375 billion, which was in turn higher than the fiscal year 2002 figure of $158 billion. While the CBO noted in its May 2004 Monthly Budget Review that "recent trends suggest that the deficit in 2004 will be less than the $477 billion that CBO projected in March," it also noted that "the deficit will widen as the year goes on."

In comparing "this year's deficit as a percentage of our gross domestic product" to "somebody that earns [$]500 grand being in debt [$]50,000, or something close to that," Limbaugh conflated the federal deficit (the difference between what the government takes in and what it spends annually) with the national debt (the total amount owed by the government). In an attempt to downplay the significance of the nation's fiscal shortfall, Limbaugh contrasted the federal deficit with the GDP (the primary measure of U.S. production), a correlation that fails to take the national debt into account. The appropriate comparison would have been between the national debt -- not the federal deficit -- and the GDP.

While this year's deficit represents about 2.9 percent of the GDP, it is only a small fraction of the total owed by the government, the national debt, which is approximately $7.26 trillion as of July 9. Since the national debt is currently 63 percent of the GDP, a more accurate analogy would involve someone who earns $500,000 being $315,000 in debt -- and only managing to pay down a fraction of the annual interest.

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