Beat the Press

Dean Baker's commentary on economic reporting


Inertia, Budget Reporting and Starving Children

I had earlier promised to give my explanation for the fact that articles on the budget fail to put budget numbers in a context that would make the millions, billions and trillions meaningful to readers. While laziness is part of the story, the bigger factor is simply inertia, why change? Reporters may agree that it would be very simple and more informative to express budget numbers as percentages of total spending or dollars (or cents) per person, but this is not how their papers did it last year. Including this information is a change, and doing things differently can put you on the spot. In short, since no one put budget numbers in context last year, no one will do it this year.

There are forces that overcome inertia. For example, if inaccurate or incomplete reporting was giving readers a bad impression of Microsoft or the pharmaceutical industry, their lawyers and lobbyists would be haranguing reporters and editors on a daily basis, demanding a change in practice. While the media does occasionally stand up to powerful interests (the New York Times has regularly produced outstanding stories exposing abuses by the pharmaceutical industry, for example), it will give in when it is wrong. In other words, they will not persist in bad reporting that hurts the interests of Microsoft or the pharmaceutical industry.

The same is not true of bad budget reporting. As I argued earlier, this budget reporting has serious consequences. People hugely overestimate the shares of the budget that go to programs like Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) or foreign aid. Surveys find that people believe that 20-30 percent of the budget goes to these programs. In reality, the shares are 0.6 percent and 0.1 percent, respectively.

As a result of this misconception, voters are far less likely to support additional spending in these areas, and often support candidates who propose cutting such programs. Given their understanding of the budget, resistance to further spending is reasonable. After all, if we’re already spending 30 percent of the budget on TANF or foreign aid, and we still have so much poverty in the United States and so much hunger in the developing world, why would anyone think that spending even more would improve the situation. (I am aware that people choose their “facts” to support predispositions, but I think this can only explain a small portion of the widespread ignorance about the budget.) In short, the widespread misconceptions about these programs are a major obstacle to increasing funding.

Of course there are organizations (policy and advocacy groups) that do try to promote increased spending on programs like TANF and foreign aid. While they may not pack the same punch as the pharmaceutical industry, they probably could effectively push for more informative budget reporting if they pressed the case with reporters and editors. Why don’t they take up this cause? They didn’t do it last year. Inertia is the most important force in politics.


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