Ask your friends, “Quick, what is the difference between the national debt and the deficit?” For the most part you will get blank stares. Most people are unclear as to the distinction between the two and generally use them interchangeably. (By way of clarification, the debt is the total accumulated amount of money we owe. The deficit is the amount that we are adding to that total each year.)
So when politicians talk about about a “deficit reduction program,” they are not referring to reducing our overall indebtedness, but are instead saying that they are going to continue to add to that debt, but at a slower rate.
To grasp the dimension of the U.S. problem, let’s use the analogy that the government is our family. We are doing really well and earn $100,000 a year. The trouble is there are lots of things our family wants/needs. And each year we end up spending $175,000! Our credit card is already LOADED, but each year we are adding ANOTHER $75,000 to the card without paying off anything. (By the way, these are the real percentages – Yikes.) No family would even imagine that they could do this for long. Pretty soon the bank would pull our credit card… hence Greece, Spain, Ireland, etc.
The point to this little example is two-fold. First, our country obviously has a big budgeting problem that needs to get fixed. But second, from the point of view of a communications professional, why has the political conversation on this subject been so confusing? Is it intentional obfuscation, or just poor communication. Whichever, the result is that the average American has no idea about the dimension of the problem.
The solution rests in more effective framing of the situation with easy-to-understand examples and powerful graphics. Whatever you think about Ronald Reagan and Ross Perot, they were masters of the chart talk and used examples we could all relate to. I am thinking we need a little of that dramatic persuasion right now!