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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press When Is the NYT Going to Start Putting Budget Numbers in Context?

When Is the NYT Going to Start Putting Budget Numbers in Context?

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Tuesday, 14 January 2014 05:11

David Leonhardt, the NYT's Washington editor, committed the paper several months ago to putting large numbers in context in response to a complaint raised by Public Editor Margaret Sullivan. There is still no evidence of this effort in the paper's budget reporting.

That is very clear in a piece today on the latest budget agreement in Congress. The article tells readers:

"The legislation also would impose new requirements for the Internal Revenue Service in reporting its activities to the public and Congress after the agency’s scrutiny of Tea Party groups’ applications for nonprofit status. The $11.3 billion appropriated for the I.R.S. is down $503 million from the level enacted in 2013.

"No money would be given to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s high-speed rail projects, or to Mr. Obama’s preschool development grants program."

Okay, how large a share of the budget is $11.3 billion? How much money did the administration request for Mr. Biden's high-speed rail projects or the preschool development grant program? Readers would have no clue how important these items are to the budget.

Later we are told:

"In contrast, Head Start, which also suffered last year, would see a $612 million increase, enough to restore the sequestration cuts."

Is this a big deal? How much does Head Start get in total now?

And we are told:

"The bill would cut $1 billion from the Affordable Care Act’s Prevention and Public Health Fund, which Republicans have long targeted, fearing the administration would use it to bolster the law’s online insurance exchanges."

Is this a one year appropriation?

For those interested, you can go to CEPR's real cool Responsible Budget Reporting calculator and find out that the $503 million cut to the IRS comes to 0.014 percent of the total budget, with the total $11.3 billion coming to 0.31 percent of the budget. (This one will actually likely cost the government money since it means that we will collect less revenue from people ripping off the government.)

Head Start will be getting around $7.7 billion in 2014 as best I can tell, that comes to 0.21 percent of the budget. The $612 million increase is 0.017 percent of the budget. And the $1 billion for the Affordable Care Act Fund would be 0.023 percent of the budget, assuming that it is a one-year appropriation.

Anyhow, this sort of context should have been in this article. As it's written it provides almost no information to almost all NYT readers. There is no defense for this sort of reporting and everyone knows it. What does it take to get the NYT to change?

Comments (6)Add Comment
...
written by Last Mover, January 14, 2014 7:06
"No money would be given to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s high-speed rail projects, or to Mr. Obama’s preschool development grants program."


Since the money that would have been spent on these programs was spent instead on the book written by Robert Gates that just made a splash among Very Serious Persons, the net impact on the economy is the same at zero, so relative amounts involved are not reported as redundant and unnecessary.
But what is the "context"?
written by Ellen1910, January 14, 2014 10:18

While I join in Dean's crusade, I think the criticism here of Leonhardt's piece could be more focused.

The subject isn't total budget savings; it's the effect of these cuts on particular programs. Aptly, the percentages should be applied not to the federal budget but to the program budget.
Both are necessary
written by bobby, January 14, 2014 11:37
As in, "an infinitesimal amount of the Federal budget will not be spent so that a whole programs's budget will be destroyed."
Jeopardy
written by Chris G, January 14, 2014 8:10
> What does it take to get the NYT to change?

I'll take "For readers to care and complain" for $1 billion, Dean.
...
written by context, January 15, 2014 12:11
The press is happy to put budget numbers in context when doing so helps the wealthy.

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-06-29/jet-tax-break-cited-six-times-by-obama-would-cut-debt-by-about-3-billion.html.
Something else irritates me.
written by J, January 15, 2014 9:15
Something else they do here makes me grind my teeth:

"The $11.3 billion appropriated for the I.R.S. is down $503 million from the level enacted in 2013."

Significant digits and unit switching. Is a million dollars important here or not? If it is, then don't tell me "$11.3 billion", tell me "11.304 billion", or if of course it isn't, just say "down half a billion dollars."

Their reflexes tell them not to do that, because "half" doesn't sound big enough.

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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.

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