There are three types of public debt. Each imposes some risks to the economic fortunes of the nation or a state. Each type differs in important ways. Each can be politically manipulated to make searing, but often mistaken points. Indeed, it requires a rare level of political integrity to speak of them with equal concern.

The first type of public debt is the one we’ve all heard about. It is too much spending matched with too little tax collections. The federal government can accrue debt easily, since it can let bonds. State and local governments can also accrue, by borrowing on municipal bond markets or underfunding pensions. Both of these debts are common. They are readily observable and easy to criticize as thoughtless disregard for future generations.

Michael J. Hicks is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and the George and Frances Ball Distinguished Professor of Economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University. His column appears in Indiana newspapers.