Dean Baker Wants Numerate Reporting

Economist and one-man economic truth squad Dean Baker has a new blog, Beat the Press, dedicated to “commentary on economic reporting.”

The inaugural posting asks, reasonably enough, why most economic journalism fails to put raw numbers in context, choosing to report the big exciting number of “$285 billion over the next six years” for the new transportation bill, rather then the more informative, contextualized number of “approximately 1.7 percent of projected federal spending over this period.”

In this case, though, it seems to me that this question actually answers itself: $285 billion sounds like a front-page headline; “approximately 1.7% of federal spending over the next six years” sounds like what William Safire used to call a “nine-point MEGO” where the MEGO stood for “my eyes glaze over” and the scale was logarithmic like the Richter scale.

And while I’m carping at my betters, let me point out that telling people that the new transportation bill will be 1.7% of federal spending or even “approximately 4.6 percent of projected discretionary spending” won’t tell most readers all that much either…unless you tell them how it compares to transportation spending last decade, whether it covers deferred maintenance, current expenditures or new capital projects, and what it does to the deficit… And your economic journalist has, what, fourteen column inches on a good day?

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