NYTOkay boys and girls, is California’s projected budget surplus of $4.4 billion bigger or smaller than Connecticut’s projected surplus of $150 million or Wisconsin’s projected surplus of $2.1 billion? I don’t mean in absolute size, I mean in importance for the states. Offhand, I couldn’t tell you, since I don’t know the size of their economies that precisely and I also don’t know whether these are figures for 1-year or 2-year budgets. (Many states have 2-year budgets.)

So why the hell does the NYT report on budget numbers this way? What information do they think they are giving readers? Couldn’t they tell their reporters to look up the state budgets and report the numbers as percentages? (California’s surplus is roughly 4.5 percent of projected spending, Connecticut’s is 0.8 percent, and Wisconsin’s is 3.0 percent.)

This is a problem with budget reporting more generally. It is standard practice to write down sums in the billions or trillions that mean almost nothing to anyone other than a small group of budget wonks. I know the NYT has very well-educated readers, but it is absurd to imagine that the vast majority have any clue what the numbers mean when they write down a five-year appropriation for transportation or 10-year projections for domestic discretionary spending. (Often the number of years covered is not even mentioned.) Most readers have so little clue about the budget that they would think the same about these numbers if a zero was added or removed.

I have raised this issue with reporters numerous times. None has tried to claim that most of their readers actually know what these numbers mean. So why do news outlets report budget numbers this way? I know it is the fraternity ritual, but I’m sorry it makes no sense. Their job is supposed to be to convey information, they are not doing so.

People do understand percentages. If the standard model was to always report budget numbers as a percent of total spending then the media would be providing information. This is supposed to be their job, not mindlessly following some ritual of budget reporting of unknown origin.

We know from polling data that the public is grossly misinformed about where their budget dollars go. It is fashionable in elite circles to laugh at people for being dumb for thinking that one-third of the budget goes to foreign aid or TANF. The laughter is much better directed at the NYT, Washington Post and NPR who have reporters who are too dumb to figure out to how to convey their subject matter in a way that is understandable to their audience.

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economy and Policy Research. He also writes a regular blog, Beat the Press, where this post originally appeared.

Photo by Dom Dada under Creative Commons license