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Obfuscation on Budget

Originally published at Quantum Matrix Scribe. Please leave any comments there.

I didn’t post this in the past two days for two reasons: one, I was ill. Posting while ill is not really a good thing unless its a strictly personal blog and/or you’re Todd Seavey. The other reason was that I was wrangling with it, trying to find the right way to write about it–or even to write about it at all.

I grew first disturbed when I picked up a copy of express–a free paper published by the Washington Post Company, but mainly having stuff from the wire services–on the Metro Tuesday, and flipped to page 11 to the story with the ominous title “Cuts for All.” Flanking a big image of Obama at a podium with some sneaky looking bureaucrat in the background were two columns: on the left, in green, were programs that were “winners” in Obama’s new budget; the on the left, in red, were the “losers.” Yet I noticed immediately that there was a problem with the columns: the winners were described in percentages, while the losers were described in billions of dollars lost. I instantly thought “Aha! The Post“–for those columns were from the Post, I discovered–”is trying to hide something! Maybe those losers aren’t really that big after all!”

Yet when I went back to my room and did some math, converting the percentages into hard numbers and the hard numbers into percentages, I didn’t really see anything jump out at me. Most of the losers’ scores in percentages were around 8-11%, while the winners’ hard numbers were around $4-6 billion, and are offset by the relatively huge $78 billion drop in military spending. They more or less matched up.

One of the most interesting things I took away from my journalism major in college was the critical thinking aspect, where we read books whose only goal was to teach us how to get past the bull. There were many interesting books in this regard; two of the best are “Asking the Right Questions” by Browne & Keeley and “unSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation” by Jackson and Jamieson, which has the great rule “If it’s scary, be wary.” What I learned from those books has remained in my head, always on guard, so when I noticed that the Post was using two different means to measure budget changes, it sent up red flags. But when I examine it, there really doesn’t seem to be anything there. So then why in the name of jumpin` Jehosophat did they decide to do that?

However, the headline and text is far easier to rail against. “Cuts for All,” hmm? That would be really interesting, both because Obama is a fairly liberal (read: social democratic) president, and because nobody has ever really cut the budget in the past, oh, let’s just say 60 years. (Probably more like a hundred at this point.) Problem is though, federal spending in the new budget has actually increased. Mainly this is because of entitlement programs–Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid–which are on autopilot, without any input or real oversight by Congress (not that they would give any decent oversight anyways.)

This is exactly why some bemoan the mainstream media for having a “liberal bias.” Here we have a news story going on about how people are going to get squeezed and taxes are going to go up, and how we’re all going to feel these cuts. But when overall spending is increasing, you cannot have everyone feeling a cut. The title is misleading, the article is polarized, and it’s just sloppy journalism. If they instead said “Cuts for Elderly and Students” it would be accurate and I would have no problem, since those programs are facing cuts. But putting it that way, they’re just trying to alarm the public. And journalism is not a primetime network drama–it’s intended to be factual information to help people make informed choices in their lives, as well as contribute to the essential civic discourse that is at the heart of every democracy. Not doing a good job there on that front.

But what really got my blood boiling is yesterday’s New York Times entitled “‘ editorial “Out of Control in the House.” The part that annoys me:

First Speaker John Boehner’s Republican leadership proposed cutting the rest of the 2011 budget by $32 billion. But that wasn’t enough for his fanatical freshmen, who demanded that it be cut by $61 billion, destroying vital government programs with gleeful abandon.

Even that wasn’t enough for leaders of the hard-line Republican Study Committee, which represents two-thirds of House Republicans. They proposed cutting another $20 billion, for a ludicrous total of $81 billion, all out of the next seven months of government operations.

“Ludicrous?” They actually used that word? Let’s think about this here for just a second; last year’s budget was $3.552 t-t-t-trillion dollars, and the deficit alone was $1.171 t-t-t-trillion dollars. $81 billion? That’s only 2.28% of the budget and only 6.91% of the deficit. Considering the budget (and I’m going to assume the deficit as well) is slightly larger this year, those percentages will likely be smaller, probably around 2.0% and 6.5% respectively. Now, I don’t what the Times considers to be ludicrous–indeed, I don’t even know what they consider to be reality anymore–but a <3% cut in our budget is hardly “ludicrous,” unless one says “ludicrously tiny.” I don’t think that’s the Times’ angle here. Could be wrong.

Look at the rest of their rhetoric: “fanatical freshmen?” “Gleeful abandon?” Or further down: “If the Republicans got their way, it would wreak havoc on Americans’ lives and national security.” (Emphasis mine.)

The Times is certainly allowed some leeway here, since this is an opinion piece (whereas the ostensible “news” piece in the express has no such excuse.) But still, I don’t think that leeway extends to such frothing-at-the-mouth absurdity. $81 billion would barely have an effect on the federal government; even the $500 billion proposed by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is only a first step, not a comprehensive solution.

There are some good points in the editorial, namely the call for the House GOP to focus on entitlement spending, since that truly is the driver for bigger government growth, but that doesn’t mean that discretionary spending can’t be cut as well. Such bombastic rhetoric is over the top. What next, are they going to start calling the Congresscritters who call for cutting our funding to the UN “isolationist barbarians?”

I apologize for getting so political about this, but it just really disheartens me when I see our news media going nuts like this. They’re doing a disservice to their readers and themselves, and are only obfuscating what’s going on in our world today. Journalism is not meant to be entertainment–sure, it can have its fun parts, particularly the weird news section–but its not supposed to go crazy. That’s one of the first lessons drilled into us at j-school: “Yellow journalism bad, straightforward and thoughtful reportage good.” Maybe our journalist writers need to relearn that.