WaPo on the Drivers of Debt

They just can't help themselves

Last week, I noted the Washington Post's flawed execution of journalistic "even-handedness" in its editorial on President Obama's draft executive order (EO) on contractor disclosure. It seems the paper is once again leveling partisan disparities with a snazzy new interactive graphic on the drivers of our nation's debt, titled, "Votes that pushed us into the red."

The piece's introduction starts out well enough, setting the scene by describing the lost surpluses projected by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) just a decade ago, and asking what happened.

Things fall apart quickly, though, as the Post tries to frame the issue as a problem of "classic Washington," complaining that neither Republicans nor Democrats will take responsibility. Without an ounce of self-awareness, the piece's authors go on to exclaim that "reality falls somewhere in between" the claims of the two parties.

In the guise of simply providing evidence to help readers solve the mystery, the Post pulls together congressional members' voting records on three different policies: the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts, President Obama's Stimulus, and funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The piece leaves its readers with the following:

In fact, 75 percent of the members currently serving in Congress voted for at least one – and in most cases more than one – of [the] three policies that contributed fully one-third of the $12.7 trillion swing from projected surpluses to real debt.

That's all the context one gets from this piece; well, that and this nifty chart:

Washington Post

A few things here; first, what about the remaining two-thirds of the $12.7 trillion swing? As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) shows, it's comprised mostly of spending on the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and the economic costs associated with the Great Recession.

It's understandable that the Post chose not to include those two events in the mix, as TARP, though politically controversial, makes up such a small sliver of the debt that it's not really necessary to include, and it's hard to pin the economic downturn on one or two votes in Congress.

Still, the piece leaves out the drivers of two-thirds of our nation's nearly $13 trillion reversal of fortune, which maybe suggests that the Post's graphic isn't the best tool for placing blame for the loss of last decade's surpluses.

Second, even if you set aside the success, or lack thereof, of the three policies – the Bush tax cuts failed miserably at creating jobs or spurring economic growth while the Recovery Act helped prevent a second Great Depression – the piece presents a false equivalency between each vote's responsibility for increasing the debt.

Does each policy contribute to the debt? Sure, but that's a bit too simplistic a view to take. Stimulus spending will roughly stay constant as a makeup of public debt taken as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) over the next decade, while the Bush tax cuts and the costs of the wars will grow to account for nearly half of public debt by just 2019.

Finally, these news pieces have consequences: people unfortunately read this paper, and a lot of people use information from supposedly reputable news outfits to help inform their views and concerns on fiscal matters. If only the Post did a better job of reporting on these issues.

Image by Flickr user M.V. Jantzen used under a Creative Commons license.

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