Part 1—Our biggest newspapers explain: Does anyone have the slightest idea what Barack Obama proposed last week?
By “anyone,” we refer to American voters, not to budget specialists. We even refer to voters who read our nation’s most famous newspapers.
Case in point: Suppose you subscribe to the Washington Post, a well-known east coast newspaper.
This morning, your newspaper thudded on your front steps. At the top of the front page, you saw this news report by Lori Montgomery.
At the start of her report, Montgomery describes a new budget proposal from “House GOP leaders.” But eventually, she describes what Obama proposed at the end of last week.
If you were an average voter, would you understand this?
MONTGOMERY (12/4/12): The framework Boehner unveiled Monday serves as a counteroffer to the plan Obama put on the table last week, which was essentially a reprise of his most recent budget request. While both plans would reduce borrowing by more than $4 trillion over the next decade, Obama's proposal would raise $1.6 trillion in fresh revenue—double the amount in the GOP plan—and produce only about $350 billion in savings from Medicaid and Medicare, the biggest drivers of future borrowing.If you were an average voter, would you understand that highlighted passage?
Republicans were outraged by the president's proposal, calling it a step backward. On Monday, Boehner referred to it as the president's "la-la-land offer."
According to Montgomery, Obama’s proposal “would reduce borrowing by more than $4 trillion over the next decade.” But how would his proposal do that? As she continues, Montgomery details proposals which add up to less than two trillion dollars.
Where does the other $2 trillion come from? If you were an average voter, would you know how to answer that?
We were struck by the confusion inherent in Montgomery’s report. Then, we looked at today’s New York Times—and we sadly chuckled at a prominent graphic.
In our hard-copy Times, the graphic is prominently featured. It is surrounded Jonathan Weisman's news report, “Republicans Make Counteroffer in Fiscal Talks.”
On-line, we can’t find the graphic. So we’ll try to describe it.
The graphic bears a bold-print title: “Comparing Initial Offers”
The subtitle appears in smaller print: “Speaker John A. Boehner put forth a plan to cut deficits by $2.2 trillion over ten years as a counter to President Obama’s offer last week.”
So far, so good! Obama made a budget proposal last week. Boehner has offered a counterproposal which would cut deficits by $2.2 trillion over ten years.
The problem begins as the graphic attempts to show the contents of these proposals. Uh-oh! According to side-by-side bold-print headings, the “Obama administration” has proposed “10-Year Savings” of, and yes, we are quoting:
“$2.0 trillion or $4.4 trillion”
Meanwhile, “Republicans” have proposed “10-Year Savings” of:
“$2.2 trillion or $4.6 trillion”
No, we aren’t making this up! In the bold-print headings of this prominent graphic, Obama has proposed savings over ten years of “$2.0 trillion or $4.4 trillion!” In his counter offer, Boehner has now proposed savings of “$2.2 trillion or $4.6 trillion!”
The analysts cried when they looked at that graphic. Resolutely, we clenched our jaw and stared into middle distance.
In fairness, the graphic attempts to explain that patently odd formulation. If readers perused the graphic’s fine print, they encountered a murky presentation—a presentation which might help explain those peculiar headings, in which Obama is said to have proposed ten-year savings of $2.0 trillion or $4.4 trillion.
Quoting fine print from the Times graphic, it would seem that the larger sum “includes $1 trillion in domestic spending cuts agreed to last year and savings from drawing down wars.” More detail appears within the graphic. But why is the Times including savings from spending cuts which were agreed to last year? What do last year's spending cuts have to do with Obama's new proposal?
Do you think Times readers could explain that? Frankly, we do not. In fairness, in his news report, Weisman does offer this:
WEISMAN (12/4/12): In all, the Republican offer would reduce the deficit more than the president’s, which predicted about $1.8 trillion in deficit reduction over the next 10 years. The White House also counted $1 trillion in cuts agreed to last year, savings from ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and lower interest payments on a shrinking debt for a total savings of $4 trillion. Republicans rejected that accounting, but using the same figures their plan would cut $4.6 trillion from future deficits over 10 years.Readers, we now have a third number for the size of Obama's proposal! According to that highlighted passage, it sounds like Obama's proposal would only create about $1.8 trillion in deficit reduction over the next ten years! It isn't "$2.0 trillion or $4.4 trillion" in budget savings at all!
We’ll take a wild guess. Very few voters have any idea what Obama proposed last week. Also this: Such voters may become more confused if they read our major newspapers.
But then, the Babel of our budget discussion has been in existence for a very long time. A great deal of confusion surrounds reporting on these proposals by Obama and Boehner. But these proposals are brand new. They’ve existed for less than a week.
Alas! In other areas, the Babel which characterizes our budget discussions has been in existence for decades. Example:
Last week, two major players tried to explain the basic way Social Security works. The workings of this venerable system are involved in the ongoing budget discussions.
For that reason, Glenn Kessler and Kevin Drum explained the basic workings of Social Security. When they did, the analysts soldiered bravely at first.
Soon, though, they started to cry.
Kessler and Drum were discussing extremely basic concepts—concepts which have lay at the heart of the discourse for decades. But in the Babel of our budget discussions, these topics remain confusing, opaque.
Do you live in a Babel? Inside a banana republic? We think the answer is quite clear.
Tomorrow, what Kessler said.
Tomorrow: What Glenn Kessler said