Dawn Patrol...
Curses, Foiled Again!

Washington Post Death Spiral Watch (Lori Montgomery Edition)

Why oh why can't we have a better press corps? Outsourced to Dean Baker:

Big Bump in Post's Budget Reporting: It Doesn't Add Up: [A] front page article complaining that the presidential candidates may have problems paying for their campaign promises warns that the $340 billion deficit projected for 2009 is likely to grow "as the economy weakens." Yeah, as the economy weakens, we will collect less money in tax revenue and we will pay out more money in unemployment benefits, food stamps, and other transfer programs. Would the Post rather the deficit did not increase in the downturn? This would not only increase the suffering, but it would also worsen the downturn, since the deficit helps to create a source of demand that would otherwise be absent....

[R]eaders would be especially hard-pressed to make any sense of this piece because it never puts any numbers in context... it doesn't... use numbers consistently.... [I]t tells readers that "economists expect the deficit to top $400 billion when the fiscal year ends Sept. 30, rivaling the all-time high set in 2004." This is wrong and wrong. The [nominal GDP of the] economy will be almost 25 percent larger in 2008 than it was in 2004.... [And m]easured as a share of GDP, the 2004 deficit was not close to a record... 3.6 percent of GDP in 2004, compared to 6.0 percent in 1983. (Adding in money borrowed from Social Security can get you to 4.6 percent of GDP in 2004.)

While [Montgomery's deficit]... numbers... [exclude] money borrowed from Social Security... [her] debt [number]... approaching $10 trillion... does include money borrowed from Social Security.... [She] warns of projections that show the debt rising by $3.3 trillion by 2018 under Obama's proposals and $4.3 trillion by 2018 under McCain's proposals... [that] do not include the $2.3 trillion in projected borrowing from Social Security over this decade.... [S]ince the numbers are neither adjusted for inflation nor expressed as a share of the economy, almost none of the Post's readers has any idea what they mean. It would have been equally useful to substitute "really big number that should scare you" for either of these projected debt figures.

The article also includes a comment about Social Security which does not make any obvious sense....

But the more immediate problem is the depletion of excess cash in the Social Security trust fund, which has been used for years to cover a portion of the annual budget deficit. Government economists predict that the Social Security surplus will start shrinking in 2011 and dry up completely by the end of the next decade, exposing government-wide budget deficits of a magnitude not seen since Bush's first term.

This should prompt a huge "huh?"... [T]he Congressional Budget Office projects the annual Social Security surplus to continue grow in dollar terms until 2016 and even as a share of GDP until 2013.... The annual surplus is not projected to disappear... until after [2020].... It is possible that [Montgomery] is referring to the surplus of Social Security taxes over benefits, but this peaked in 2006... as a share of GDP... peaked in 2000.

There are other errors.... For example, it reports that Senator Obama's... health care plan would add $65 billion to the annual deficit. This figure does not include the revenue from the fee that he has proposed for firms who do not provide health care insurance for their workers.

In short, readers can learn from this article that the Washington Post is very concerned about deficits. They cannot learn much else.

I still have no informed opinion about why this state of affairs. Lori Montgomery is giving her bosses up through Len Downie and Katherine Weymouth and Donald Graham what they want, clearly--and what they want is not to inform their readers about the budget. They could have chosen differently--the editors of the Wall Street Journal news section and of the Financial Times have chosen differently, If Len Downie and company truly want to entertain rather than inform, why not have Lori Montgomery write about Hollywood or professional sports? The people in Hollywood are much more aesthetic than politicians or budget experts. Professional sports not only has prettier and much more athletic people but also superbly structured narrative story lines without the awkward ambiguities and loose ends of government and policy.

It is a mystery...