Meaningless California Budget Numbers

Print
Tuesday, 28 June 2011 04:50

The NYT told its readers nothing when it said that California is using an optimistic revenue assumption of an additional $4 billion in revenue next year in order to balance its budget. It is unlikely that even 1 percent of NYT readers have any idea of how large California's budget is. There is no way to assess the importance of the revenue assumptions or spending cuts discussed in this article without knowing how large the total budget is.

California spends roughly $130 billion a year, so assuming a $4 billion rise in revenue, this would be an increase approximately equal to 3 percent of the budget [corrected -- thanks GP].

One of the major reasons that the public is so ill-informed about the budget (at all levels of government) is that reporters routinely report budget numbers without any context. Since almost no one knows how big the total budget is, they don't realize that many of the items drawing attention from politicians or the media are irrelevant for all practical purposes.

For example, the $1 million Woodstock museum that Senator McCain made a major prop of his 2008 presidential campaign cost 0.00003 percent of the federal budget. If the media had made a point of putting this cost in the context of all federal spending, it is likely that Mr. McCain would have been forced to find a more substantial item in the budget to make an argument about government waste.