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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press Fraternity Type Reporting on Budget and Food Stamp Cuts at the WaPo

Fraternity Type Reporting on Budget and Food Stamp Cuts at the WaPo

Tuesday, 28 January 2014 06:10

Budget reporters are apparently all in some secret fraternity in which they practice bizarre rituals like using numbers that will be meaningless to almost of their readers. Hence we get the Washington Post telling us:

"Negotiators agreed Monday evening on a new five-year Farm Bill that slashes about $23 billion in federal spending by ending direct payments to farmers, consolidating dozens of Agriculture Department programs and by cutting about $8 billion in food stamp assistance."

Okay, how big a deal is savings $8 billion on food stamps over the next five years or $23 billion on the whole bill? Sure, everyone knows the significance of these numbers because they've been reading through the Office of Management and Budget's projection for the next decade.

This is just asinine. The Post's reporters and editors know that almost none of their readers have any sense of what these numbers mean in terms of the total budget or their own pocket book. They are just really big numbers, as David Leonhardt the former Washington editor of the NYT said. Since almost no one reading these numbers can attach any meaning to them, the purpose of putting them in the paper cannot be to inform readers. Obviously the motive here is to comply with the bizarre fraternity ritual of budget reporters.

It is not hard to express these numbers in ways that would convey information to the vast majority of readers. A quick trip to CEPR's Responsible Budget Reporting Calculator would tell readers that the $23 billion cut amounts to 0.11 percent of projected federal spending while the $8 billion cut in food stamps would reduce federal spending by 0.04 percent. Now you know how much consequence these items have for the budget and your tax bill. Maybe one day we will have reporters and news outlets that put informing their audience above fraternity rituals, but not this day.

Comments (8)Add Comment
Jeff Bezos Changes Name of WaPo to The Slasher
written by Last Mover, January 28, 2014 6:47
... Farm Bill that slashes about $23 billion in federal spending ...

Here at the Slasher, our job is to highlight the Marginal Revolution of Neoclassical Economics by emphasizing changes at the margin that obviously drive the size of the government budget - instead of pointing out how politicians succeed - through us sock puppets - in appearing to make really slashy changes at the margin while making no effective changes at all.

written by Squeezed Turnip, January 28, 2014 7:56
To the extent that the neo-journalists pretend $4 billion is consequential, so do they pretend that their "reporting" is meaningful.
written by Alex Bollinger, January 28, 2014 9:11
I just wanted to point out to prof. baker that I'm glad he keeps on bringing up this issue.

Contrary to popular belief, journalists are capable of learning. They just need to have their mistakes pointed out several hundred times more than the rest of us.
written by skeptonomist, January 28, 2014 9:48
The piece does not mention crop insurance, which has been a bone of contention. It has been alleged that subsidies are shifting from direct payments, which supposedly have now been discontinued (but not really). The WaPo itself had another piece on this yesterday (from the AP) - "Subsidies in the farm bill".
How to make numbers more impressive
written by Sustainable Gains, January 28, 2014 12:59
To put budgetary numbers in proper context, I think they should publish all the digits.

Just the other day I saw a graph comparing Jamie Dimon's pay with President Obama's. Dimon had the smaller number, but he had an "M" next to it. Obama looked pretty rich at 400+, even though Dimon actually gets paid 10 to 100 times more.

Nowadays, thanks to decades of "low" inflation, the budget and GDP numbers ($10,000,000,000,000/year) are comparable to the number of stars in the galaxy (about 10,000,000,000,000). So instead of calling these kinds of numbers "astronomical", perhaps we should call them "economical" numbers. (credit for this line of reasoning goes to Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman from some decades ago).
written by PeonInChief, January 28, 2014 2:40
The article should also explain what a $90 reduction in benefits means to the affected families, and that only about half of those eligible for SNAP actually receive benefits. A little more advertising might be in order to help enable more families to receive benefits.
a reference point to big numbers I'd like to see
written by Ring, January 28, 2014 7:24
How much do the cuts reduce an individual's tax burden in dollars? Or, how much do they save the typical millionaire?
written by watermelonpunch, January 28, 2014 10:16
Jeff Bezos Changes Name of WaPo to The Slasher
written by Last Mover, January 28, 2014 7:47

Because sensational.

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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.