Posted tagged ‘The New York Times’

Stupid Reporter Tricks: NYTimes/Economics Writing Edition

December 9, 2008

You would think that there was little harm one could do on a mostly straight report on the emerging details of the Obama Adminstration’s stimulus plan.  But it turns out that Peter Baker and John M. Broder managed to find a way.

As I say, most of their article on the Obama plan to spend an enormous sum on public works was what it advertised itself:  a list of the projects that the new administration will fund in the hopes of achieving both short term job growth and long term return on capital improvements in things like transit and the electric grid, among much else.

But then they had to go do the obligatory reportorial “on the other hand,” seeking out a quote from an economist for that noted wellspring of intellectual rigor, the American Enterprise Institute. The AEI’s Mr. Viard obligingly offered up a bit of what he hoped would slip by as Econ 101 (or Ec. 10, for those who share my experience of that venerable course number as used at Cambridge Community College).  He said that…

…public works spending should not be authorized out of the “illusory hope of job gains or economic stabilization.”“If more money is spent on infrastructure, more workers will be employed in that sector,” Mr. Viard added. “In the long run, however, an increase in infrastructure spending requires a reduction in public or private spending for other goods and services. As a result, fewer workers are employed in other sectors of the economy.”

Sounds so simple, and so obviously right, doesn’t it?

Except, except, except…that there are two unstated assumptions here that render the quoted claim more or less nonesense

The first is that the economy is working so close to full capacity that effort in one sector needs must crowd out activity in another.  That is, at full or near employment, or so economists I consulted before writing this post told me, an aggressive public works program would indeed impose an added demand on labor (and other inputs) that could jostle other activities out of the way…but the notion that such expenditures merely rob Peter to pay Paul in a time of high and growing unemployment and a flight of capital from investment is, to put it kindly, misinformed.

For historical support for that statement, go back over the recent skirmishes over whether or not the New Deal worked.  See e.g. this and this, both from estimable Edge of the American West blog.

The other faulty assumption sneaks in there in that by-weasels much-loved phrase:  “In the long run.”

Not to belabor the Keynes connection, but, besides being the location in which we are all dead, the long run does display meaningful differences from the here-and-now. Yes — it is true that debt acquired now must be repaid in the future.  (Sort of–as historians of capitalism like Fernand Braudel have noted, the creation of a permanent, floating, tradeable government debt was one of the keys to Britain’s rise to economic dominance in the eighteenth century, and has played a significant role ever since.)

But the fact that economic conditions change over time does bear on the situation:  deficit spending to prevent disaster in a downturn can have, as mainstream economists have understood for a while, a signficant positive effect on future output (see the New Deal posts reference above).  Wild unfunded spending on stupid wars and transfer payments to the rich in a bubble-boom, not so much, but this isn’t a post about that.

In other words:  Viard’s disingenous argument that paying tomorrow for a hamburger today is a bad idea only works if you’ve already consumed enough Big Macs to make you sick.  That’s not the case right now, as most of us have grasped — which, among other reasons, is why we are not anticipating the inauguration of President John McCain.

Well and good:  so far all we know is that Viard is an ideologically blinkered guy doing what folks do who work for shops like the AEI — trying a little spin to influence the unwary.

But that’s my point.  If Viard wants either (a) to be as simpleminded as the above quote suggests, or (b) to be carefully, accurately deceptive in the way he frames an argument he knows to be weak (take your pick), that’s his look out.  What about the Times’s guys?

They are the ones at fault here.  They fell into the lazy reporter’s idea of  “balanced” journalism, where the conception of balance requires only that you transcribe a quote from somebody willing to say something opposed to the prior source’s quote.

This is a common enough trap in political reporting — reference any number of stories from the last twelve months.

But I think economics writing might be particularly at risk for sloppiness of this sort.  Economics is technical enough for the detailed analysis behind claims to be beyond most non-economist reporter/writers.  It is uncertain enough, incomplete enough as a discipline so that dissent and argument is not just plausible, it’s required.

But that still doesn’t mean you can just let any nonesense fly by.  Most reporters covering complex subjects — all science writing for example, most medical reporting and so on — know less about the technical issues within any particular story than their sources will.

(Peter Gammons is the one certain exception to this.  He knows more about his speciality, baseball, than all but a handful of those inside the clubhouses.  But the Commisioner, as Gammons is known, is a demi-god, and the rest of us aren’t.)

The solution is the same as it always is.  Get a reality check. Call someone.  I’m no journalist. (I was once, of the cub variety, but I haven’t committed serious reporting for decades). But I work at a place with a pretty good econ department, and it wasn’t hard to pick up the phone and the email cursor and ask a few people some questions.  Total time involved — about ten minutes to put the word out; return of answers within a couple of hours.  All deadline-friendly, in other words.

The rub of this all is that there are some very good econ reporters out there.  The Times employs one of the best of them in David Leonhardt. He would have known that Viard was blowing smoke.  That the two writers on this story did not would still have been o.k., if they had merely done what reporters used to do as a matter of course:  get a reality check.  Call someone who actually knows more than you do.  Just ask if the claim makes any kind of sense.

To put all this another way:  the two reporters on this story ought to have been alerted to their problem by the internal evidence of their own quote.  Viard’s statement, if true, is too obvious to have escaped smart people like Obama’s advisors — the Goulsbees and the Summers of the world.

If stimulus can’t work, if there is the kind of law-of-nature certainty that deficit spending defeats itself then, now, and always, then you would easily be able to find both economic-historical evidence and lots more heavyweight folks to say so than some guy flacking for a partisan “think” tank.  No?  Maybe, just maybe then, you’d think there was a problem here.

As a reporter for the “newspaper of record” you have to be able to run that simple minded a smell test.  If you can’t, or won’t?…well, to echo the master:

Why oh why can’t we have a better press corps?

Image:   Bernarda Bryson Shahn, “A Mule and A Plow,” poster for the Resettlement Administration, c. 1935-1937.