Syllabus Part II: Economics 101b Fall 2005
Another Gulf Storm...

Dingbat Kabuki! (Yet Another Why-Oh-Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? Edition)

Jonathan Weisman of the Washington Post is on the front page getting the story... umm... not quite right:

House GOP Leaders Set to Cut Spending: Leadership Shake-Up Spurred Policy Shift. By Jonathan Weisman: House Republican leaders have moved from balking at big cuts in Medicaid and other programs to embracing them, driven by pent-up anger from fiscal conservatives concerned about runaway spending and the leadership's own weakening hold on power. Beginning this week, the House GOP lawmakers will take steps to cut as much as $50 billion from the fiscal 2006 budget for health care for the poor, food stamps and farm supports, as well as considering across-the-board cuts in other programs...

But if you read to the end of the article--and if you understand budget concepts and reporting conventions--you can see that Weisman's announcement that the House Leadership has changed course and wants a new "cut... $50 billion from the fiscal 2006 budget" is... strange. It seems that Speaker "Hastert... announce[d] that... cuts to entitlement programs such as Medicaid, food stamps and farm supports would be raised from $35 billion to $50 billion." So its a $15 billion change in direction--not $50. And it's not in the fiscal year 2006 budget. The original $35 that has been topped-off to $50 are cumulative "entitlement cuts over five years"--originally $7 and now $10 in each of the next five years.

So we're not talking about a $50 billion cut relative to baseline in entitlement spending for fiscal year 2006. We're talking about a $3 billion cut.

But everyone--well, everyone except those of us who actually care about responsible fiscal policy--happy to sell this a $50 billion cut?

Five reasons:

  1. The Republican House leadership wants this to seem like a big deal. They want to appear fiscally responsible. They want the base not to be made at them. They will be grateful if Jonathan reports it as $50 billion in FY 2006 rather than $3 billion.
  2. The conservative Republican House members who believe in smaller government want this to seem like a big deal: they have been powerless, and think that if they can appear powerful they will become powerful. They too will be grateful if Jonathan reports that they were able to pressure Hastert and company into a $50 billion change-of-direction in 2006 rather than a $3 billion change-of-direction.
  3. The Democrats will be happy too: a $50 billion cut in food stamps and Medicaid in FY 2006 is a very effective base-energizing talking point.
  4. It's hard to convince one's editors that a $3-billion-in-FY-2006 change-of-direction is worth putting on the front page. It's much easier to convince one's editors that a $50-billion-in-FY-2006 change-of-direction deserves placement on page 1.

And the readers of the Post? People who might care whether the number is $3 or $50 billion? People who might want to know what the relevant scale is--that $3 billion is 0.6% of the $500 billion annual deficit (excluding the Social Security surplus), is 0.04% of the $8 trillion gross federal debt? They're not in the picture.


Make no mistake: this is the kind of reporting that the Washington Post likes. Let's turn over the mike to its editors:

Jonathan Weisman Moves to National

After a terrific three-year run in Financial, Jonathan Weisman will join the National staff covering the House of Representatives. Jonathan's timing is perfect. He's inheriting a beat with so many great running story lines -- from the plight of Tom Delay to the frayed relations between the White House and congressional Republicans to the coming midterm elections -- that he should have little trouble making an early mark. Jonathan is a terrific, tireless reporter with a long history of bringing home scoops and setting the agenda on his beat, two traits he promises to bring to his new assignment.

He also comes with a deep familiarity of the Hill, earned from covering economic policy issues, from budgeting to taxation to Social Security and Medicare, for many years. Before joining The Post, Jonathan worked for USA Today, where he covered economic policy, then defense issues after Sept. 11. His reporting career has included coverage of the Clinton White House, the 2000 presidential campaign and major congressional issues for The Baltimore Sun, as well as more detailed tax, energy and transportation coverage for Congressional Quarterly. For five years, he wrote about science, energy and nuclear weapons issues for The Oakland Tribune in California.

Jonathan will move quickly into his new role, while helping us keep current on economic policy issues until Jill Dutt can find his replacement.

Readers of the Post beware...