And Now Back to the Economy

Like much of the election season debate over the war in Iraq, much of the recent discussion about the U.S. economy has been willfully distorted along partisan lines.

No matter what happens in today’s elections, the great tundra of American punditry will soon be teeming with debates over what went down and what it all means. Regardless of the outcome, though, problems will still be looming on the horizon. First and foremost, Iraq. As columnist Sebastian Mallaby noted in yesterday’s Washington Post “The news has been dominated by elections and Iraq. After tomorrow, there will be only Iraq.”

True, the nation desperately needs an honest and apolitical debate about the future of Iraq. But the same could be said of another issue closer to home—specifically, the state of the U.S. economy.

Unlike the situation in Iraq, the reality on the ground of the American economy is much more of a mixed bag. As Jonathan Chait recently noted in the New Republic, the economy in recent years presents a somewhat confusing picture. Productivity is up. Unemployment is down. Yet median incomes have remained stubbornly flat.

Like much of the election season debate over the war in Iraq, much of the recent discussion about the U.S. economy has been willfully distorted along partisan lines. A vote for the democrats is a vote for the Tax and sp-End of the Planet. A vote for the Republicans is a vote for Big Pharma.

Hopefully, with the elections over, journalists can pry themselves away from reporting on the economy through this false dichotomy and get back to more complex and nuanced coverage of a complex and nuanced marketplace.

What would such coverage look like? Well, sometimes it’s easier to answer that question in a negative. What would good, honest reporting on the U.S. economy (and Congress’ impact on it) not look like? It certainly wouldn’t look like this recent article in the Washington Times.

Under the headline, “Specter of tax man haunts Democrats,” the article ostensibly sets out to answer how a transfer of power in Congress would affect U.S. economic policy. In reality, the article sets out to scare readers with the specter of scary, scary Democrats.

“Repealing President Bush’s tax cuts and boosting social-welfare spending have been the meat and potatoes of the Democrats’ campaigns since the 2002 election, and they would be in a position to attempt both if they win control of Congress next week,” wrote the Times.

“[T]he power structure on Capitol Hill would shift dramatically from right to far left under Democratic rule if veteran liberal lawmakers take over the chairmanships of committees that would write the tax and spending bills the House and Senate would consider,” added the Times.

Typical of this genre of reporting, the article devoted much space to chronicling the Democrats’ supposed love of high taxes and free-wheeling spending, without honestly exploring either (a) the giant spending boom under the current Republican lead Congress or (b) the government’s inability to pay for President Bush’s tax cuts without borrowing a huge amount of money from creditors.

Only towards the end of the article does the author get around to discussing the massive federal budget deficits racked up under the current Congress. And, predictably, the author shields the Republican Party from blame by characterizing the problem as a bipartisan one—a characterization the author cleverly sources to a Democrat, specifically Leon Panetta, former House Budget Committee chairman and Clinton chief of staff.

“Mr. Panetta blames both Republicans and Democrats for the sizable budget deficits of the past six years and does not see that changing dramatically anytime soon,” reported the Times, “despite this year’s sharp decline in the deficits as a result of unexpectedly stronger federal tax revenues.”

Putting all the requisite finger pointing aside for a moment, the problem of what do about the nation’s long-term fiscal outlook remains a real concern. In September, the United States Government Accountability Office published its annual long-term fiscal simulations. The results were troubling.

“GAO’s current long-term simulations continue to show ever-larger deficits resulting in a federal debt burden that ultimately spirals out of control….,” reported the GAO. “Under any reasonable set of expectations about future spending and revenues, the risks posed to the Nation’s future financial condition are too high to be acceptable.”

That’s a challenge which will face members of Congress regardless of their political affiliation. With any luck, the Times and news organizations of its ilk, can lay aside their partisanship after the election, and get back to reporting on the actual economy and Congress’ actual effect on it.

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.