A good example of how the press can distort, or at least offer sharply different views of the same situation, can be found by comparing my column from this week on Paul Ryan's budget with a Bloomberg News treatment of the same topic.
The Bloomberg News treatment focuses on the plan's supposed austerity:
House Republicans expect to adopt a budget resolution this week that envisions eliminating most federal debt by cutting government's share of the economy to a level not seen since 1951, before Medicare, Medicaid, the Environmental Protection Agency and the space program. Federal spending as a proportion of gross domestic product would fall by one-third by 2050 to 16 percent from 24 percent in 2011, according to calculations by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office....It raises no extra revenue and relies on spending reductions alone to bring the budget into balance. Over the next decade, it would cut $5.3 trillion in projected outlays.
My column emphasizes the lack of austerity:
After ten years of Mr. Ryan's plan, the federal government would still be running a $287 billion annual deficit. That is what the plan produces in the year 2022.
For a second thing, it doesn't reduce the national debt. Mr. Ryan's figures show the national debt held by the public growing to $15 trillion in 2022, up from about $11 trillion this year.
For a third thing, the Ryan budget doesn't reduce the share of GDP that the government takes from taxpayers. On the contrary, Mr. Ryan's numbers show federal government revenue as a share of GDP growing to 18.7% in 2022 from 15.8% this year.
For a fourth thing, the Ryan budget doesn't reduce government spending. It would increase federal outlays to $4,888 billion in 2022 from $3,624 billion in 2012, an increase of about 35% over ten years.
Part of the reason for the difference is that Bloomberg is using the 2050 numbers rather than the 2022 numbers. Now I understand that the federal government is a big giant cruise ship or supertanker rather than a Boston Whaler, a kayak, or some other small, easily maneuverable craft. It takes a long time to turn around. But anyone running a small or even a large business knows the difficulty of predicting the next quarter's sales or profits, or the next year's. We're supposed to pay serious attention to a budget projection for 2050? The equivalent — a 38-year in advance prediction — would have been someone in 1974 trying to predict the federal budget in 2012. All sorts of variables — the population of America, health care costs, the existence or non-existence of the Soviet Union — that are important to the forecast are just really hard to predict that far in advance.
Lower down, the Bloomberg article does acknowledge, "Republicans were eager, though, to show that they would at least put the government on the path toward balancing the budget. Still, they would take until 2040 to erase the annual deficit."
How's that for a Republican political slogan? "A balanced budget in 2040!" In 2040, Paul Ryan, who is now 42, would be 70 years old, and, if he is still in Congress at that point, will have spent 41 years in the House of Representatives. Many of the rest of the Republican congressmen, who are older, will be dead, which may or may not be much consolation to any taxpayer who would want to vote them out of office if they don't meet the goal. As I wrote in another context:
The quip about the alcoholic who prays, "Lord make me sober but not too soon" has been repeated by so many columnists that at this point it is a cliché. But as a wise old editor once told me, "They're clichés for a reason." In this case, the reason is that it so accurately describes the situation.
And again, Mr. Ryan is the fiscal conservative in the Republican Party and on the national political scene.
And again, this isn't an attack on him. He's better than Obama, and he's better than a lot of the other Republicans, and as someone even younger than he is, someone who would very much like to be alive in 2050, I'm glad he's trying to improve the long-term fiscal outlook. I just wish he and his colleagues in Washington would try to turn things around faster.