Fact-Checking Zakaria

When I read this transcript from Fareed Zakaria this bit leapt out at me:

The Chinese are by far the largest holders of American debt, for example. They buy billions of dollars’ worth of American Treasury bills every week.

Now perhaps Mr. Zakaria is engaging in a masterful piece of misdirection by conflating “debt” with “American Treasury bills” but, assuming he means U. S. public debt he’s flat out wrong.

Here’s the most recent version from the Treasury Department of foreign holders of U. S. securities. Japan, with $593.4 billion is the largest holder, with mainland China at $518.7 billion second. If you combine China and Hong Kong, the figure is $579.3, still not “by far the largest”. If you add Taiwan’s $40.2 billion, you arrive at $619.5, more than Japan but not by an amazing amount.

Here’s the data (from April) on foreign holders in pie chart form:

But that’s misleading, too, since it only looks at foreign holders of U. S. debt. Here’s the corresponding pie chart for all holders:

You can click on either image for a larger version.

The total U. S. public debt is about $9.7 trillion, China’s holdings about $502 billion of that or roughly 5% of the total. An accurate re-statement of Mr. Zakaria’s statement is

The American people are by far the largest holders of U. S. public debt and the Chinese hold about 5% of U. S. public debt.

That’s still a heckuva lot of money but, if we’re going to discuss the subject sensibly, we should probably leave the hyperbole and half-truths aside.

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Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.

Comments

  1. Bithead says:

    Well, that meme does have the advantage of matching the horror scenario of everything at WalMart, that example of running dog capitalism, being made in China…. (Snicker)

    Mind, I’m not making light of the relationship with China. But it does seem to me that the stretch of this situation matches almost perfectly the strech of the situation you describe, and I wonder if it wasn’t designed so.

  2. Steve Verdon says:

    That’s still a heckuva lot of money but, if we’re going to discuss the subject sensibly, we should probably leave the hyperbole and half-truths aside.

    It is an election year, hyperbole and half-truths are the order of the day, yes even from pundits.