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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press Paul Krugman Gets Food Stamps Wrong by a Factor of Ten, Ha Ha!

Paul Krugman Gets Food Stamps Wrong by a Factor of Ten, Ha Ha!

Monday, 05 August 2013 08:55

Okay, I am not really writing this to make fun of my friend Paul Krugman for whom I have enormous respect. The point here is that reporters should be trying to express budget numbers in terms that are understandable to their audience.

Krugman was apparently misled by news accounts (like this one) reporting that the Republicans wanted to cut food stamps by $40 billion which did not point out that this cut was over ten years, not one year. I have been ranting about this point for a while. If reporters made a point of putting budget numbers in context, for example by expressing them as a share of the total budget, you would not get silly mistakes like this. (See CEPR's super keen budget calculator so you can get these numbers right.)

If the standard budget reporting can mislead Paul Krugman about the budget then I think it's fair to say it's got serious problems. Who exactly is being informed by it?

Comments (13)Add Comment
written by medgeek, August 05, 2013 9:35
Dean, I'm glad you're continuing this campaign. The federal budget and GDP are big numbers, out of the range of personal experience and are therefore difficult to wrap one's mind around. Expressing these as percentages is the only chance informed readers have to understand the numbers.

Of course, this may not be enough as the general populace is very innumerate. I suggest everyone interested in this subject read Paulos's book on the subject, if you have not already done so:


written by watermelonpunch, August 05, 2013 9:44
I talked to someone the other day who I got the impression was saying it was 40 billion per year cut being proposed. Or at least if he knew it was over 10 years, he didn't specify that when telling me about what he'd heard about this proposal.

I didn't know for sure at the time and had no immediate means of checking where I was, but I remembered it sounded off somehow. But not off enough to remember later to check into it, because nothing really surprises me anymore when people propose budget cuts to programs for struggling families. In that, if there was a proposal to stop all food stamps completely, I would be shocked, but not surprised.

And the only reason I'd even paused while hearing this is because I've been paying more attention to what big numbers mean since reading this blog's pointing out the troubles with big numbers being reported out of context.
Food Stamps are the most expansionary economic policy in existence
written by Tyler Healey, August 05, 2013 10:36
SNAP is an excellent program. Conversely, we can never count on declines in the interest rate to move the economy to full employment.

The economy started to grow again in the 1980s because energy prices fell and Reagan grew the budget deficit.
Money Creation For POTB (People Other Than Bankers)
written by Tyler Healey, August 05, 2013 10:44
Dr. Baker,

I'd like to recommend this extremely important blog post from Michael Stephens: http://www.multiplier-effect.org/?p=9050
Need for standard phrasing.
written by jeff fisher, August 05, 2013 3:18
A good example of how the common practice of describing multi-year financial numbers as a single value over various numbers of years fails.

$50 billion over five years, $50 billion, $50 billion over ten years. We humans just aren't great at processing those phrases correctly. We are surely very likely to misread or misremember them so as to confirm our biases.

The obvious solution is to heavily favor reporting annualized numbers. "averaging $5 billion per year for 5 years." seems cognitively better than "$25 billion over 5 years" even if the latter happened to be a bit more literally accurate (perhaps because the spending would ramp up or down). Further the literally true "$x over y years" phrasing while allowing the possibility of some more complex trajectory of finance fails to actually describe it at all and is therefore not actually useful in that regard, it simply hides a failure to explain. The "$x over y years" phrasing is very compact and literally accurate, and thus appealing to writers, but it is a trap for real public understanding.
Bezos buys Fox on 15th street
written by Peter K., August 05, 2013 4:28
He's a libertarian.
written by http://www.mytownsmall.com/my_profile/blog-view/blog_15372.htm, August 05, 2013 10:45
written by http://www.homebasedbusinessprogram.com/profiles/blogs/attributes-of-free-ads-websites, August 06, 2013 12:09
Who Do You Think You Are Fooling?, Low-rated comment [Show]
written by delphi_ote, August 06, 2013 5:38
"Fortunately the internet has put the blade to your sleazy games"

written by ComradeAnon, August 06, 2013 10:16
We got a tin foil alert at 2:02. Can I get a mop and bucket please?
written by coberly, August 06, 2013 4:14
in the spirit of numbers that people can understand:

The Social Security "actuarial deficit" of "8 Trillion Dollars!" could be entirely eliminated by raising the payroll tax eighty cents per week each year per taxpayer.

That's one tenth of one percent per year over twenty of the next 75 years, if you think that's easier to understand.

Is it numerical illiteracy or some other reason you never hear it described this way, much less explained?
written by ltr, August 06, 2013 4:32
Excellent Dean, and Krugman has not fixed the mistake yet.

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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.