Fuzzy Math, Sloppy Reporting

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman

Though they demonstrated unusual backbone in the past few weeks having discovered that the White House has purposely and deliberately lied to them about Karl Rove's efforts to out a CIA agent for political purposes, the White House press corps have considerable trouble remembering the singular fact that the first five years of this administration should have taught them nothing – and I mean absolutely nothing – this administration claims can be taken at face value. If George W. Bush, Dick Cheney or Karl Rove tells you what time it is; check your watch. Makes sure it's still there.

Yet another of the endless cases in point can be found buried under last week's Rove-mania (before it was crowded out by the hurried SCOTUS nomination of John Roberts), are the recent Bush budget claims, in which they pretend to have gotten their Everest-like pile of debt under control. This past Sunday, for instance, in a classic bait and switch, Republican National Chairman Ken Mehlman told Tim Russert on Meet the Press, "Just this past week, we found out the [national] deficit was going to be $100 billion lower than we thought it would be just a few months ago because of this president's pro-growth policies." While it's true enough that the deficit has been lowered by $100 billion, it's something of a stretch to credit the president's "pro growth policies" – a wrinkle that Russert, true to form, failed to follow up on.

In fact, the claim is nonsense, but Russert's refusal to challenge it is hardly an isolated instance. Take for example the New York Times' contention last week that "The midyear budget forecast also shows that President Bush is on track to reach his goal of halving the deficit a year before his deadline of 2009." We've heard this deficit-halving plan time and again over the past few years and almost every time, the underlying fact is that it's based on an untruth – one so obvious, so transparent, it amounts to criminal association for reporters to allow it to pass without response.

In a July 14 story, headlined "Deficit Down 22% in Latest Projection," the LA Times falls into the trap of lazy, research-free writing, holding that "The starting point for the administration's calculation is $521 billion, or 4.5% of GDP, its original 2004 deficit estimate, which proved to be too high for that year. The new projections show the deficit declining to less than half that amount…"

If the projection turned out to be false, one wonders, why would the reporters even bother with it? One could ask the New York Times the same thing, when on the same day as the LA Times article, the newspaper of record made the same, lazy mistake, reporting that "the administration" was predicting that the deficit would shrink faster in the next four years than it had previously predicted, adding, "That was a bolder forecast than Mr. Bush's previous vow to cut the deficit in half by 2009, and some analysts on Wall Street warned that it was too optimistic=" (Hmm, perhaps this might be 'too optimistic' because the alleged $521 million never existed in the first place.)

The facts are as follows: According to the calculations published by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported this week, despite much of what you read in the papers about the nation's rapid economic growth contributing to the lowered deficit, economic growth thus far in 2005 has not been unusually rapid. Instead, most of the major causes of the revenue surge this year are due to "one-time" factors that have little to do with economic growth, including the Santa-clause present for big corporations that allowed them repatriate foreign profits back to the United States at a vastly reduced tax rate. The long-term trends are as disturbing as ever.

The Clinton administration managed to bring the federal budget into surplus by more than $236 billion, while most long-term projections predicted large surpluses as far as they eye could see, down from the $550 billion in accrued deficits under the previous Republican administration, led by the president's father. Yet even before the additional spending necessary for Bush's two wars, he immediately began busting the budget. Last year the federal government ran a shortfall of $413 billion, which was short of the $521 billion deficit that administration numbers wonks had predicted in February 2004. Working from the inflated projection instead of the actual deficit number, the president first claimed to have already "reduced" the deficit by about $100 billion, and by cutting it by another $260 billion, he can ultimately claim victory. But even this only tells part of the story. In its budget and deficit projections, the administration neglects to include the costs of Afghanistan, Iraq, its Social Security plan, or fixing the alternative minimum tax. If these add-ons were included, even the inflated $521 billion number would skyrocket. What's more, while the upcoming budget is being touted for its "belt-tightening measures" and the fiscal restraint the administration is trying to show, there is this one ugly reality that no one seems to want to mention: Spending growth under President Bush has been almost four times as high as it was during the same period of Bill Clinton's presidency. "No two-term president in post-war U.S. history," observed a Bloomberg report, "has ever presided over a spending binge this monumental in his first six years in office."

As the folks at Bloomberg noted, "If we want to put our fiscal house in order, we need to stop arguing over taxes and bring back the Clinton spending." And if the Bush team and the Republican Congress are ever to be forced to deal with the fiscal nightmare they are creating for America's future, the mainstream media's reporting on the issue had better begin paying attention to the underlying reality below its (typically) deliberately deceptive spin.

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including most recently, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences.

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