The National Debt Clock, pictured hanging in New York City in 2010, displays a live count of the United States' national debt.
The interview only took two minutes out of months of NPR coverage on the national deficit. But guest host David Greene's conversation with economist Laurence Kotlikoff prompted a column from a prominent progressive think tank, and speaks to larger questions NPR hosts and producers deal with all the time.
In the August 6 interview on Weekends on All Things Considered, Kotlikoff explained the paths he saw out of the national debt. The Boston University economist also explained why he thought the national debt — calculated by the U.S. Government at $14.3 trillion — pales in comparison to what he says is a "fiscal gap" of $211 trillion.
The segment caught the attention of Dean Baker, a co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He wrote a column for his blog Beat The Press objecting forcefully to the Kotlikoff interview. The zinger? "This is an extraordinary example of cesspool journalism..."
Specifically, Baker objected to NPR airing Kotlikoff's "unusual accounting" without immediate context and other perspectives on the deficit and spending cuts.
We asked Greene and Weekend All Things Considered Supervising Senior Editor Rick Holter how they chose to interview Kotlikoff, and to offer some insight into how they share a wide range of viewpoints in the larger context of NPR's deficit coverage. Especially unusual views like Kotlikoff's.
Holter wrote this response:
During its coverage of the debt-ceiling crisis, NPR has featured hundreds of economic voices analyzing the country's debt situation from across the political/economic spectrum. And weekends on All Things Considered has been on this for months, talking to dozens of economists — from Paul Krugman to Peter Diamond to Laura Tyson.
Kotlikoff came to our attention because of his focus on the long-term "fiscal gap" between expected revenues and benefits promised to Americans. His bona fides are solidly conservative: He was the chief economist for President Reagan's economic advisory council. He also is unusual among conservative economic voices: He says the country must cut budgets and entitlement programs, but he also says taxes must be raised.
For all those reasons, his was a voice we thought would add to the discussion, especially the day after S&P downgraded U.S. debt. It doesn't make sense to isolate him from the great range of voices we've heard over the last six months on the show and the network.
One other note: The $211 trillion figure is unimaginably big. But future economic projections can fluctuate wildly. Just this week, for example, the Congressional Budget Office adjusted its projections of total deficits over the next decade from $6.7 trillion to $3.5 trillion. About two-thirds of that was because of the debt deal, but the other $1 trillion-plus was just slight changes in interest rates and economic growth projections.
— Rick Holter
Supervising Senior Editor
Weekends on All Things Considered
Do you think Kotlikoff's perspective added to NPR listeners' understanding of the federal debt? If you were this show's executive producer, would you have aired the segment? What would you have done differently? Let us know.
Andrew Maddocks contributed to this post.