The problem, however, is that a sea of numbers glazes over the eyes.
A visual solution is a chart in the style of Minard's famous map of Napoleon's march to Moscow. The width of the line denotes the number of troops still alive in Napoleon's Grand Army. The shocking information is conveyed at a glance. (Below)
In the case of a debt chart, for historical accuracy, debt numbers should be in inflation-adjusted, per capita debt dollars.
That’s an awesome “tableau graphique,” especially for the era!
Per capita and inflation adjusted numbers don’t tell the whole and accurate story. The percentages, however, do. People really don’t care what the actual numbers are, just how much the changes have been. Besides, no one has accurate inflationary figures to adjust dollar figures by. So, if $1 was spent in 1791 what, excatly, would that number be for 2011? No one really knows.
I find it best to leave all numbers as they were originally reported and let the reader determine what the numbers mean to them. One thing our government does is play loose with number using “seasonally adjusted” or “adjusted for inflation” or “per capita” numbers. They are meaningless as they have no concrete basis, so people do not trust them. Real numbers as reported tend to have more meaning.