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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press NYT Does Budget Reporting the Frat Boy Way

NYT Does Budget Reporting the Frat Boy Way

Sunday, 26 May 2013 07:26

Okay boys and girls, is California's projected budget surplus of $4.4 billion bigger or smaller than Connecticut's projected surplus of $150 million or Wisconsin's projected surplus of $2.1 billion? I don't mean in absolute size, I mean in importance for the states. Offhand, I couldn't tell you, since I don't know the size of their economies that precisely and I also don't know whether these are figures for 1-year or 2-year budgets. (Many states have 2-year budgets.)

So why the hell does the NYT report on budget numbers this way? What information do they think they are giving readers? Couldn't they tell their reporters to look up the state budgets and report the numbers as percentages? (California's surplus is roughly 4.5 percent of projected spending, Connecticut's is 0.8 percent, and Wisconsin's is 3.0 percent.)

This is a problem with budget reporting more generally. It is standard practice to write down sums in the billions or trillions that mean almost nothing to anyone other than a small group of budget wonks. I know the NYT has very well-educated readers, but it is absurd to imagine that the vast majority have any clue what the numbers mean when they write down a five-year appropriation for transportation or 10-year projections for domestic discretionary spending. (Often the number of years covered is not even mentioned.) Most readers have so little clue about the budget that they would think the same about these numbers if a zero was added or removed.

I have raised this issue with reporters numerous times. None has tried to claim that most of their readers actually know what these numbers mean. So why do news outlets report budget numbers this way? I know it is the fraternity ritual, but I'm sorry it makes no sense. Their job is supposed to be to convey information, they are not doing so.

People do understand percentages. If the standard model was to always report budget numbers as a percent of total spending then the media would be providing information. This is supposed to be their job, not mindlessly following some ritual of budget reporting of unknown origin.

We know from polling data that the public is grossly misinformed about where their budget dollars go. It is fashionable in elite circles to laugh at people for being dumb for thinking that one-third of the budget goes to foreign aid or TANF. The laughter is much better directed at the NYT, Washington Post and NPR who have reporters who are too dumb to figure out to how to convey their subject matter in a way that is understandable to their audience.

Comments (9)Add Comment
Tell Us
written by Michiganmitch, May 26, 2013 8:11
Dean, what percent of the budget is actually spent on "welfare" and what are the component programs? (SNAP,TANF what else)
Krugman is as superficial as the Republican elite, Low-rated comment [Show]
written by Chris Engel, May 26, 2013 9:09
Context context context.

Percentages aren't even necessarily enough, without some idea of what the percentage means now relative to the past.

All we readers want is a little context from reporters, and no spin.
Another One for You
written by Bart, May 26, 2013 9:32

See also the Jonathan Turley piece in the Post about the size of government, especially his 4th paragraph with the figures from 1790, 1962 and today with no context at all on relative population size, expenditures, number of states, wars, etc.
written by Last Mover, May 26, 2013 10:33
As Carl Sagan and the frat boys who obviously read him would say, budget numbers are like stars in the universe, in the beeeelions and beeeelions ...
written by Grumpa, May 26, 2013 2:26
Rachel, the ACA is less bloated than the current system, which is why it passed and won't be repealed. But single-payer is still the way to go: the larger the group the lower the rates they can demand. The US doesn't promote competition anymore, under the guise of savings on scale of costs.
If they simply divided by the number of state residents the budget numbers would be more comprehensible.
written by John Wright, May 26, 2013 8:14
Dean's comment is understandable, but is expecting too much from the journalists fighting for a byline.

If the articles had simply stated the budget surplus per capita, it would be scaled to individual citizens.

Then they would see that California's low end surplus of 1.2 billion is about $31.57 per resident.

But this comparison would make a "California faces a new Quandary, Too much money" headline laughable.

I believe journalistic "happy talk" of this nature is to be expected as the well-off media owners want to offer some encouragement to the hoi polloi as the median standard of living declines.

Poor Nancy Folbre gags (gagged?) at NYTimes
written by JaaaaayCeeeee, May 27, 2013 2:14

Is nyt now the pre-Murdoch WSJ, or WaPo, or what? Last week an editorial (invitation to a dialogue) that high unemployment is permanent and structural. Today, Nancy Folbre, in Economix, doesn't even dare to come out and say aggregate demand is the problem, let alone a solution is fiscal policy, or why Congress keeps ignoring unemployment, the IMF, Ben Bernanke, and anyone with an ounce of integrity. Arrgghh. maybe I'm too touchy. http://economix.blogs.nytimes....ef=economy
To wax conspiratorial about the lack of demand stimulation
written by John Wright, May 27, 2013 9:17
Re: Nancy Folbre

Perhaps there really are few climate change skeptics among the elite.

Then posit the elite view climate change as real and will have extreme negative effects through out the world.

Furthermore suggest the elite view climate change will be largely impossible to prevent/delay without a massive aggregate drop in per capita economic output or a massive drop in population throughout the world.

This suggests the elite and their political, media and economic allies will NOT want to pump up demand and attendant CO2 production, allowing them more planning time for the new climate change constrained world.

They want to manage demand enough to ensure civil order.

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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.