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PunditFact: Sharpton's rebuttal to Palin confuses debt with deficit

The Rev. Al Sharpton, right.

Associated Press

The Rev. Al Sharpton, right.

The statement

Under Obama, the national debt "has been reduced every year for the last five years."

Al Sharpton, Nov. 12, on MSNBC's PoliticsNation

The ruling

The Rev. Al Sharpton used his MSNBC show PoliticsNation to criticize former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for recently likening the national debt to slavery.

But Sharpton made a common mistake — confusing the national debt with the deficit.

"I mean, first of all, slavery in the American context was based on race. So you can't talk about slavery in American context without talking about race," said Sharpton, reacting to Palin's defense that her comparison is not racist. "But second of all … the debt … by the way has been reduced every year for the last five years under this president."

In this case, Sharpton's specific claim is wrong. The debt has risen each year in terms of dollar amount and as a share of the economy since 2007. And it will continue to increase this year, said Jason Peuquet, Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget research fellow.

On Jan. 20, 2009, when Obama took office, the country's total outstanding debt was $10.6 trillion. It stood at $17.1 trillion as of Nov. 8, according to the Treasury Department's "Debt to the Penny" calculator.

What Sharpton likely meant to say is that the deficit "has been reduced every year for the last five years." The deficit is the difference between what a government collects in revenues and spends in any one year. The debt is the accumulation of annual deficits minus any annual surpluses.

The country started running a deficit in 2002, at $159 billion. The recent run of deficits peaked in 2009 at $1.4 trillion, Obama's first year in office.

Since then, it's come down, and there are a couple of ways to count that.

One way is in sheer dollars, through historical tables from the White House Office of Management and Budget and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office:

2008: $458.6 billion deficit

2009: $1.413 trillion deficit

2010: $1.294 trillion deficit

2011: $1.299 trillion deficit

2012: $1.087 trillion deficit

2013: $642 billion deficit (estimated)

In this view, the deficit fell in 2010, 2012 and 2013, but increased in 2011.

By another measure — the deficit as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product — the deficit did fall four consecutive years.

2008: 3.2 percent deficit

2009: 10.1 percent deficit

2010: 9 percent deficit

2011: 8.7 percent deficit

2012: 7 percent deficit

2013: 6 percent deficit (estimated)

Sharpton said that the national debt "has been reduced every year for the last five years." Sharpton confused the downward trend in annual deficits with the debt, which is what he said on air and what Palin controversially likened to slavery.

We rate his claim False.

Edited for print. Read the full version at

PunditFact: Sharpton's rebuttal to Palin confuses debt with deficit 11/15/13 [Last modified: Friday, November 15, 2013 3:24pm]
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