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Baffling Budget Numbers: Making Reporters Do Their Jobs
New York Times headquarters, by Renzo Piano (Photo: Dom Dada / Flickr)

Baffling Budget Numbers: Making Reporters Do Their Jobs

New York Times headquarters, by Renzo Piano (Photo: Dom Dada / Flickr)

The vast majority of the public does not have a clue about where their tax dollars go. Polls consistently show that the vast majority of the public has almost no idea of where their tax dollars go.

They tend to hugely overestimate the portion of the budget that goes to items like food stamps, public broadcasting and foreign aid, and to underestimate the importance of Medicare, the military and other core items in the budget. As a result, people are often ill-informed when it comes to political debates on budget priorities.

This can lead to absurd situations where large numbers of people tell pollsters things like they would like to see foreign aid cut. But then say they would like government to spend much more in this area than we are now spending.

It’s common in elite circles to attribute this ignorance to the stupidity or the inherent lack of interest of most of the public in politics. Most people do have better things to do with their time than to study budget documents. However the media deserve much of the blame for the public’s ignorance due to their awful reporting of budget issues.

At the most basic level the media routinely fail in their responsibility to report budget numbers in ways that are understandable to their audience. The standard practice in budget reporting is to report spending on a particular program in dollar amounts.

This typically means reporting a number in the billions or tens of billions of dollars. These numbers are meaningless to the vast majority of people who read or hear them.

Almost no one will know whether the $18 billion appropriated to Temporary Assistance to Need families (TANF) for 2013 is a large or small portion of the federal budget because they don’t happen to know offhand how large the budget is. They just know that $18 billion is a lot of money; it is far more than they will ever see in their lifetime. Of course this would be true if the number were $1.8 billion or $180 billion also.

The situation is even worse when a spending number covers a number of years. Even fewer people have any sense of projected spending over a 10-year period. It doesn’t help that news reports often are not even clear as to the number of years covered by a specific spending proposal.

The New York Times gave us two case studies in bad budget reporting last week. In one case the paper reported on the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) estimate of the impact of immigration reform on the budget over the next decade. In the other case it reported on the debate over the extension of the food stamp program.
In both articles the NYT followed the budget reporting ritual to the letter. As a result it conveyed almost no information to its readers.

In the immigration article we were told CBO projects that immigration reform would reduce the deficit by $197 billion from 2014-2023. In the following decade CBO projected the deficit reduction would be even greater — an estimated $700 billion. Feel informed?

The NYT has a very well educated readership, but sorry, almost none of these people has any clue how large $197 billion is relative to the 10-year budget. (It’s about 0.4 percent.) Even fewer have been looking at budget projections for 2024-2033. (The projected deficit reduction would be around 0.9 percent of projected spending.)

The NYT managed to botch the food stamp story even worse, describing food stamps as a “$760 billion program.” I thought they were referring to the 10-year cost, but in fact it was just a typo and they had mistakenly added a zero.

We all make mistakes, but this one would have been less likely to slip past editors and find its way into print if the original story had described food stamps as being equal to 1.8 percent of the federal budget. That route also would have provided most readers with meaningful information.

There is no reason the media cannot make it a policy to report budget numbers percentages or in other ways put them in a context that make them meaningful. There is zero argument on the other side. Budget reporters are intelligent people who can use a calculator. This exercise would add no more than a second or two to the time needed for filing a story.

This is a case where progressives can hope to make a difference. There is currently a petition at Move-On asking the NYT to change its practice on budget reporting. There is no reason that they should not change, and if they do, much of the rest of the media is likely to follow.

Petitioning the media to change its budget reporting might be outside the standard scope of action among progressives, but it is a well-defined action that could make a real difference. Much of our budget debate today is complete nonsense in large part because the public is so
poorly informed.

It should no longer be the case that people ask for cuts to anti-poverty programs even when they think the right amount of spending is two or three time as large as current outlays. We need a better informed debate. Pressuring the media can bring force them to take their responsibility to inform the public seriously.

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