Good Reporting Requires Good Numbers

Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, has started a new blog called “Beat the Press,” solely devoted to bad reporting on budgetary numbers. His premise:

[T]he public is hugely misinformed about the federal budget. Most people hugely overestimate the share of spending that goes to areas like TANF (the main cash welfare program) and foreign aid. Millions of people believe that the budget can be balanced by cutting these programs or eliminating some pork barrel projects that got special attention. The reality is that most of the obvious pork is pretty trivial in the context of the whole budget, and even taken together, a mass slaughter of pork barrel projects would not go very far towards eliminating the deficit. (I’m no fan of pork. I just don’t want people to be misled about it importance in the budget.)

We can deplore the general public’s ignorance about the budget, but is it really any surprise when all they ever see are numbers that would be meaningless to anyone who is not a budget wonk?

Even by specializing in this topic, I suspect Baker will only skim the surface. Innumeracy is epidemic and the press corps seems to have particularly low immunity.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. John Burgess says:

    One of the grave misperceptions we had to deal with while I was at USIA/State was the amount of money that went to foreign assistance of all stripes.

    The popular belief was that it represented some 15% of the budget. In fact, it was less that 0.5%