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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press Will Immigration Reform Do Wonders for the Budget? Does Anyone Who Reads the NYT Article on the Topic Have Any Idea?

Will Immigration Reform Do Wonders for the Budget? Does Anyone Who Reads the NYT Article on the Topic Have Any Idea?

Wednesday, 19 June 2013 04:48

Yesterday I got to make fun of the NYT for telling readers that food stamps was a $760 billion program. I thought they were giving the 10-year cost, but apparently they had just made a mistake and added a zero to the annual cost, as they later acknowledged in a correction.

This helped make my point. No one, apparently including the editors at the NYT, has any idea what these budget numbers mean. If the original article had told readers that spending on the food stamp program was roughly 1.8 percent of this year's budget it would have immediately conveyed meaningful information to readers. And the editors at the NYT probably would have noticed if the piece had said that food stamps were 18 percent of the budget.

Anyhow, today the NYT obliged us with another example of meaningless budget numbers in reporting on the budgetary consequences of immigration reform. According to a new report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO):

"The report estimates that in the first decade after the immigration bill is carried out, the net effect of adding millions of additional taxpayers would decrease the federal budget deficit by $197 billion. Over the next decade, the report found, the deficit reduction would be even greater — an estimated $700 billion, from 2024 to 2033."

Okay, are we in for a budget bonanza from immigration reform? After all, those are pretty big numbers.

Well in the first decade CBO projects that we will be spending about $50 trillion, so the savings from immigration reform amounts to about 0.4 percent of projected spending. That's about 1000 times as important as John McCain's Woodstock Museum, but only about 3 percent of what we are slated to spend on the military. The $700 billion over the following decade is a somewhat bigger deal, but it is still only 0.9 percent of projected spending.

But the real question here is do the NYT's editors really believe that they were conveying information to their readers by publishing these numbers? What percent of NYT readers have any clue as to the size of projected federal spending or the size of the economy over the years 2024-2033? I am willing to assert that it is much less than one percent, which means that the overwhelming majority of NYT readers had no idea what the numbers in this article meant.

What is the point of putting numbers in an article that don't mean anything to the people who read them? The vast majority of NYT readers do understand percentages. The NYT could have made this information meaningful to these readers simply by expressing them relative to the size of projected budget. That information is readily available from CBO as well as many other sources.

What possible reason can there be for not writing articles in a way that conveys information when it easy and costless to do so?

Comments (9)Add Comment
good question
written by watermelonpunch, June 19, 2013 7:55
Yes, what possible reason can there be for not writing articles in a way that conveys information?
Pushing Their Own Agenda
written by Not My Real Fake Name, June 19, 2013 8:29
They are purposely pushing their own agenda with regards to the current Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill in the Senate. They are for it, and they generally only write articles in favor of it. Also, have you noticed that most of their on-line articles on the immigration bill no longer have comments? It’s because the comments generally refuted all their reported “facts”. They are 6% owned by the man who owns the telecom monopoly in Mexico and they are influenced by that. Krugman wrote a piece a while back savaging the H1-B visa and use of US guest workers in general. Good luck finding it now.
Dear Professor...
written by nassim sabba, June 19, 2013 9:30
Some of these editors teach at ivy league schools. They are full professors, or I should says professors full of themselves.

So, Columbia, Yale, New School and Princeton are putting the stuff of these professors into the heads of the next generation of jurinalists, and charge 50K+ per year, per head.

What a business, and only in America.
Shock & Awe
written by Amit, June 19, 2013 12:33
The reason media loves to use numbers rather than percentages is to shock the average reader/viewer into siding with their opinion. In percentage terms, as Dean says, people can easily figure out that there's not much substance behind the claims of biased journalists with their own agendas. My conservative friends in B-school talked only in numbers when dissing food stamps for the same reason - intentional cognitive dissonance to mislead the public at large.
The graph
written by J Highfill, June 19, 2013 1:29
Thank you for explaining. Over breakfast, I was puzzling over the graph included with the article. The graph doesn't show a huge difference between projected deficits with and without the immigration reform law. It thus contradict the interpretation advanced in the article. Where does the NYT get these reporters (and editors)?!
This is standard fare for the NY Times
written by John Wright, June 20, 2013 12:07
On May 25,2013, the NYT had an article titled
"California Faces a New Quandary, Too Much Money"


The article informs that California projects a yearly budget surplus of $1.2 to $4.4 billion dollars.

If one simply divides the larger number by 38 million California residents, this works out to be a massive $116 per California resident this year.

And at the smaller number, $31.60 per resident.

Stated this way makes the headline, one might safely argue, a bit hyperbolic.

But the NYTimes wants to sell newspapers/sell online content.

The NYTimes in the entertainment business and likely chooses reporters, columnists, and editors that will make the news "entertaining" as a primary goal.

It is good that Beat the Press is skeptical of the news media, but I fear the percentage of NYTimes/Washington Post readers who also read BTP is very small.

Judging from the quick correction of the 760 billion food stamp number from Dean's other posting, it does seem some employees of the Times MAY look at BTP, which is somewhat encouraging.

written by bobs, June 20, 2013 3:12
$700 billion is always big and 4% is always small, regardless of context, even if the two amounts are equal.

US defense spending is huge: it's as much as $700 billion.

US defense spending is small: it's only 4% of GDP.
written by Chris Engel, June 20, 2013 5:32
I've signed the petition, so should you:


New York Times: Inform Your Readers, Don't Just Use Big Scary Numbers @moveon
Purposefully Misleading Graph
written by Not My Real Fake Name, June 23, 2013 9:58
I would argue that this graph is purposefully misleading. By using wide bars to represent the projected deficit without the passing of the immigration bill, and narrow bars to represent the projected deficit with passage of the immigration bill it leads the reader’s eye to consider the AREA of the bar as the measure of the size of the deficit when in fact it is only the difference in the HEIGHT of the bars that is meaningful. A more informative and meaningful graph would place bars of the same width side by side with the difference in height alone clearly displaying the impact of the proposed law. An even more informative graph would show bands of confidence intervals in the future projections. However this type of depiction would likely show the proposed savings as being well within the margin of error of the forecast. This would help to show that the only thing we know for certain about the proposed law is that the country will be more crowded and the number of people in the job market will increase.

Since I assume that the NY Times is well aware of these types of well know ways to use graphs to confuse rather than inform I assume it was done purposefully.

See the link below for other examples of purposefully misleading graphs.

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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.