Headline writers: enough already with the disembodied trillions!

February 9th, 2016 at 12:09 pm

President Obama’s 2017 budget is out today, and here’s why I think it’s worth a look. Yes, he’s approaching lame duck status and Congressional conservatives wouldn’t even use the thing for door stop. But I think it’s relevant in ways that you might find resonant, including vis-a-vis campaign politics.

But what’s really working my last good nerve right now are all these headlines I’m seeing from reports on the budget release.

Obama sends Congress record $4.1 trillion 2017 spending plan (AP)

The White House released its $4 trillion blueprint for a progressive agenda. (Politico)

President Obama has sent a $4 trillion budget to Congress. (NYT)

Obama Reaches for Relevance With $4.1 Trillion 2017 Budget Plan (Bloomberg)

Obama sends $4.1 trillion budget to testy Congress (USA Today)

And so on…

What’s the problem with all of these headlines? Are they incorrect? No, the very first budget table shows outlays of $4.1 trillion in 2017. It also, a few lines down, shows that to be 21.5% of GDP. That’s 1 percentage point of GDP above average spending since 1975. It’s about the same as the 21.6% average during the Reagan years.

Now, I’ve not seen this tested, but what do you think is more alarmist from the readers’ perspective: $4 trillion or 21.5% of GDP? My guess is the former–the trillions–especially if you were to take the extra step, as you should, and put the GDP share in context.

Such context is essential, btw. The economy grows, population grows, inflation grows–each one of those leads to higher nominal spending, even were you to hold policy constant (which, to be clear, the President decidedly does not do here–see my piece linked above). See both nominal $’s (in billions, left axis) below and GDP shares (right axis). One just keeps climbing as the gov’t clearly goes out-of-control! The other one…not so much.

To be fair, many of these articles talk about the deficit and debt as shares of GDP, as they should. And I get it: headlines are meant to grab and alarm you, not make you think about long division. But I still think this use of disembodied trillions is an unfortunate habit and I wish they’d either stop it or at least add context.

Source: OMB

Source: OMB

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One comment in reply to "Headline writers: enough already with the disembodied trillions!"

  1. Tom in MN says:

    One of my pet peeves is reports, like this headlines, of single numbers. One number by itself is neither large or small. I tell my classes that $1M might be large in your checking account, but is rounding error for the Federal government.

    And the budget hitting a record is no more news than the population of the US hitting a new record (every 8 seconds according to http://www.census.gov/popclock/).