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

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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.