Saturday, August 02, 2014

Informing The Public

Dean Baker accuses the New York Times of “frat boy reporting” in its article regarding the VA spending bill because they give the amount of the bill as $17 billion which he says is “presenting readers with really big numbers which mean almost nothing to any of them.” He “corrects” that problem by telling his readers that $17 billion amounts to “approximately 0.45 percent of annual spending,” which I regard as giving his readers tiny little numbers which mean very little more to them than do the big numbers provided by the New York Times.

What really matters is not what percentage of government spending that $17 billion amounts to, but rather to what degree it solves the problem. If spending 0.45% of the annual budget on the issue solves the problem, then it hardly makes sense to spend more than that, so telling us what percentage of the budget is being expended is no more informative than is giving us the amount of the expenditure.

The point he wants to make is whether or not the expenditure is major in terms relative to our national spending, but that is a minor point, and by saying that the amount means “almost nothing to any of them” he sort of insults the readers. The number will certainly be meaningless to some readers, but most readers who follow politics, even casually, will be able to put that number into context fairly readily.

What matters in terms of real national interest is whether or not we are solving the problem at the Veterans Administration, and examining the size of the expenditure does not answer that. We should be asking about the size of the expenditure relative to the size of the problem at the VA. Is it large enough to solve the problem? Knowing that it is 0.45% of spending tells us no more about that than does knowing that it is $17 billion.

He does make a valid point in saying that the article fails to say whether the expenditure is for one year or for multiple years, but even there his point is weak because the nature of the need is not made clear either. He is asking about the expenditure, but is not asking if the need is a one-time need or one which is ongoing, and to what degree that need is being met by the bill.

It’s also a bit odd that Baker can tell us what percentage of annual spending the bill amounts to while complaining that “the time period is certainly not clear from this article.” He asserts that $17 billion is “0.45% of annual spending,” regardless of whether that amount is spent in two years or is spread out over ten years. Rather strange math.

At any rate, "providing information to the readers" would really consist of comparing the spending amount to the problem, not to the national budget, and telling the public how far the amount being spent goes toward solving the problem, so in actuality Dean Baker is being no more informative than is the New York Times.

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