Man on Wire

I understand, of course, the American journalism convention to keep opinions out of news columns and to stick to verifiable facts. Lippmann was big on that. Long may it reign.

But when I say the Times’s David Leonhardt pulls off a balancing act in explaining how the U.S. government compiled its enormous current and projected deficits, the emphasis is definitely on the word “act.” This is a performance worthy of Phillippe Petit:

There are two basic truths about the enormous deficits that the federal government will run in the coming years.

The first is that President Obama’s agenda, ambitious as it may be, is responsible for only a sliver of the deficits, despite what many of his Republican critics are saying. The second is that Mr. Obama does not have a realistic plan for eliminating the deficit, despite what his advisers have suggested.

This isn’t really a criticism; it’s more an appreciation. How do you balance this story? You don’t have to be Milton Friedman to know the crude fact that Clinton left with surpluses projected to the rainbow, and that under Bush the federal budget did a 180—with a somersault, in a piked position.

But the Times certainly tries. Here are the first two paragraphs. To be fair, the emphases are the Times’s, which uses them in a heroic attempt to portray the sheer scale of the turnabout:

The story of today’s deficits starts in January 2001, as President Bill Clinton was leaving office. The Congressional Budget Office estimated then that the government would run an average annual surplus of more than $800 billion a year from 2009 to 2012. Today, the government is expected to run a $1.2 trillion annual deficit in those years.

Now, it might have been more helpful to break out the swing in terms of the two administrations—the swing in Bush’s eight years, then the additions from Obama’s first few months, plus projections from the rest of his plans—rather than lumping them together, as this paragraph does.

But that’s a quibble. The story gamely tries to break it down:

You can think of that roughly $2 trillion swing as coming from four broad categories: the business cycle, President George W. Bush’s policies, policies from the Bush years that are scheduled to expire but that Mr. Obama has chosen to extend, and new policies proposed by Mr. Obama.

Another slip is writing off the first chunk flatly to the business cycle. That downturn was bubble-enhanced, a bubble that had its roots in Clinton/Greenspan-era policies. As long as you’re at this credit/blame exercise, you might as well ladle out some more where it’s due.

This rest is valuable:

About 33 percent of the swing stems from new legislation signed by Mr. Bush. That legislation, like his tax cuts and the Medicare prescription drug benefit, not only continue to cost the government but have also increased interest payments on the national debt.

Mr. Obama’s main contribution to the deficit is his extension of several Bush policies, like the Iraq war and tax cuts for households making less than $250,000. Such policies — together with the Wall Street bailout, which was signed by Mr. Bush and supported by Mr. Obama — account for 20 percent of the swing.

And this is interesting:

About 7 percent comes from the stimulus bill that Mr. Obama signed in February. And only 3 percent comes from Mr. Obama’s agenda on health care, education, energy and other areas.

The Times quotes an academic who raises balancing to a high art:

Alan Auerbach, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, and an author of a widely cited study on the dangers of the current deficits, describes the situation like so: “Bush behaved incredibly irresponsibly for eight years. On the one hand, it might seem unfair for people to blame Obama for not fixing it. On the other hand, he’s not fixing it.”

“And,” he added, “not fixing it is, in a sense, making it worse.”

Bravo! Whew! That pirouette at the end was breathtaking!

Actually, the story is too short in the sense that it spends too much time on (the lack of) plans to fix the problem and not enough on how we got here. Journalism is much better at digging into the record than projecting the future.

The graphic helps.

It’s too facile to call this story a case of false balance. Its handling is actually fairly deft. But reading the big papers one does get the sense that thirty years of press-bashing from the right has taken a toll on just calling it like it is. This piece was like walking across a wire with a juggling pin in one hand—and an anvil in the other.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.