The folks in Italy must be pretty happy. After years of being forced to worry about deficits the NYT told readers:
“Faced with record unemployment and a public debt of more than €2 billion, or $2.6 billion, the grand coalition was already under pressure for the slow pace of its reforms.”
That would be great news since the NYT’s numbers imply that Italy’s debt is just over 0.1 percent of GDP. According to the IMF, Italy’s debt is more than 2.0 trillion euros, more than 130 percent of GDP.
Of course the numbers in the NYT are a mistake. It wrote “billions” when it meant “trillions.” This sort of thing can happen, but it does raise the question of why the NYT thought it was clever to write “trillions” rather than write 130 percent of GDP. While a reporter or editor should have recognized the typo in writing billions, it is almost inconceivable that someone would not have recognized the typo if the paper had written that Italy had a debt of 0.1 percent of GDP.
It is worth noting that this is not the first time that a mistake like this has made its way into print or at least cyberspace in the NYT. Just a few weeks ago a NYT article told readers that food stamps are a $760 billion program. That might have surprised the small group of readers familiar with actual spending on the program, since the correct number is $76 billion for 2013. (The NYT did subsequently correct this mistake.)
The point is not just to mock the NYT for what are in fact egregious errors. (Sorry, missing the size of Italy’s debt by three orders of magnitude is pretty bad.) The point is why on earth is it a standard in budget reporting to express budget figures in numbers that are apparently meaningless even to the people to write them, when they could very easily be expressed as percentages which would be meaningful to the vast majority of readers.
Almost all NYT readers would understand that the food stamp program in 2013 is roughly 1.8 percent of the budget. Almost none know what it means to spend $76 billion on the program. If the point is to inform readers, then the paper would express the number in percentage terms, end of story. The only reason to express numbers as dollar (or euro) amounts is to mindlessly follow a fraternity ritual. (This is what budget reporters do.)
It is understandable that people who want to promote confusion about the budget — for example convincing people that all their tax dollars went to food stamps — would support the current method of budget reporting. It is impossible to understand why people who want a well-informed public would not push for changing this archaic and absurd practice.
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 Brian Dewey under Creative Commons license