CNBC spins right (and wrong) on the debt and deficit

The factually challenged network is at it again

CNBC, that font of misinformation, would like you to know that “Anyone who ran a company with a balance sheet that looked like the U.S. probably wouldn’t have a company anymore.”

Of course, nobody can run a company with a balance sheet like the US, which is why it’s always a mistake to compare the US government to a corporation, much less a household. The government can pass taxes and print money. You and I can’t.

But if you’re going to look at the government’s net worth, you have to look at all of its assets as well as its liabilities, as Cullen Roche points out. Here’s CNBC:

The picture painted by the federal balance for fiscal year 2012 shows a nation with a negative net worth of more than $16 trillion, according to the Treasury Department’s year-end reports and calculations from banking analyst Dick Bove.

In reality, this is obviously not so. Just think about the gobsmacking natural resources the federal government controls. Roche points to fossil fuels alone, which are worth trillions upon trillions of dollars.

The government also owns 650 million acres of land—some 30 percent of the land mass of the United States, which is worth a little something.

It also owns 361,000 buildings with 3.3 billion square feet of real estate—roughly six Manhattan office markets. By comparison, the biggest real estate investment trust owns 220 million square feet, and much of that is outside the US. The replacement cost of the government’s buildings alone was $1.5 trillion in 2007.

CNBC also doesn’t count the market value of the US gold stash, which is worth $400 billion or so.

Biggest of all, there’s the value of being able to tax a $16 trillion-a-year economy and to print your own money. It’s hard to put a price on that, but it’s worth far more than the net debt of the US.

Perhaps worse even than CNBC’s balance-sheet boo-boo is this whopper:

The declining national deficit this year due primarily to sequestration budget cuts has provided some optimism that the problem is becoming more manageable.

That’s flat false.

Higher tax receipts accounted for nearly 80 percent of the decline in the deficit. Government spending declined by $84 billion in fiscal year 2013, and sequestration was responsible for about $42 billion of that.

Tax receipts, meantime, rose $325 billion, accounting for the vast majority of the decline in the deficit.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,