Budget 2009 does come up with illustrative pie-in-the-sky projections beyond that date - and Balls was referring to one of these. To be specific, the 2009 Budget refers (1) to "debt falling as a proportion of GDP by 2017-18 when the global shocks will have worked their way through the economy in full." So this is what he was referring to when he said on the radio "Alistair Darling in the budget set out plans which show the deficit coming down, national debt coming down."
I told him that he is referring to a debt ratio, not debt, and they are two fundamentally different things. One is money, the other is a ratio. Outside the world of government finance, there is only one interpretation of "debt falling." There is not a person in this country, I said, who doesn't understand the difference between their debt rising, and their debt falling. If Balls goes on the radio and says "debt will fall" he is giving a false impression to the people who will be paying off this debt. Balls said that my explanation is "economically illiterate" and that every public finance geek in the world thinks of debt as a ratio of gross domestic product. Quite possibly, I replied, but every voter in Britain - other than those who work for the Treasury - thinks of debt in very clear terms. It goes up, or goes down. The government does not have special magic debt, which makes it exempt from this binary distinction. And to these voters, debt is far from abstract.
Balls told me if I keep the post up, it will "expose" the sort of publication that we are - and our "political" bias. A curious point. McBride used to make pathetic little "threats" like this - now he's gone, Balls has to do the dirty work himself. You'd think Balls has perhaps by now worked out that The Spectator is rather pleased to consider itself a thorn in the side of this tawdry, mendacious government. "So you will take the post down?" Balls said. I just laughed. He hung up. Matt d'Ancona was later surprised to find out that he had four missed calls from Balls on his mobile.
Balls was deploying the "false proxy" - one of the tools he and Brown use to mislead the public. The Brown/Balls spin technique is all about the gap between their verbal and financial positions. Debt is a classic case in point. Most people understand "reducing the national debt" to mean, well, reducing the national debt. Brown and Balls would claim to do this, when in fact they were increasing the national debt - but by slightly less than the growth of the economy. Orwell would have great fun with Brown and Balls - they have invented statistical doublethink. A way of describing 'up' as 'down'.
If you're reading this, Ed (and I suspect you will be) then we have a serious point to make. Five years ago, you could lie like this on the radio and get away with it. Space is tight in newspapers, no one would devote hundreds of words and graphs - as we did - to expose a lie for what is. But the world has changed now. Blogging has brought new, hyper scrutiny. Blogs have infinite space, and people with endless energy, to expose political lying - no matter how small. Your claims can be instantly counter-checked, by anyone. If you stretch the truth, you can be exposed - by anyone. And if you plan to base a whole election campaign on a lie, as you apparently intend to do, then you're in for a rude awakening.
PS I had a more courteous conversation with Balls' excellent SPAD, and promised him we'd also hound the Tories if they used false proxies. He said it was an issue of semantics, and the word "lie" really was unwarranted. I suggested to him that we'd put it to a poll and let CoffeeHousers decide if Balls was lying. It was his turn to laugh.
PPS Balls' office sent across various quotes from the Budget purporting to stand up his "debt ratio" claim but his case is aptly summarised in the above graph, Chart 2.3, from p36 of the 2009 Budget. Net debt is the black line. Given that we're at the start of the graph, and that Darling's plans end where the line becomes dotted, is it honest to describe the below trajectory of a ratio as plans for "national debt coming down"? Over to you, CoffeeHousers.