It's Time to Impound Mr. Babington's Thesaurus

Sun, 01 Mar 2009 14:59:07 +0000

I've always thought that reporters should be very mindful of the way they use adjectives in their articles. Charles Babington's piece on the Obama budget is a case in point. Here's a list of modifiers used outside of direct quotes that I think are excessive (as opposed to merely unnecessary, of which there are several more): breathtaking, sprawling, stunning*, jaw-dropping, whopping. Are these words the hallmark of an objective reporter or a story-teller?

What we know is that the Obama budget is unprecedented in the postwar period in its size and in the size of the gap between spending and revenues. How is this being described? Here's a quote from the article:

"We're struck with how bold and courageous a budget it is," said James Horney of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which supports the president. "There are a whole lot of things that are going to be extremely difficult because there are very powerful vested interests out there that will fight them."

As I did with the term "deficit hawk," I'd like to distinguish the degree to which "bold" and "courageous" apply here and pick up on Stan's earlier post. Running a large deficit isn't bold or courageous. Raising broad-based taxes or cutting expenditures so that you don't run a large deficit is bold and courageous. While there are many improvements in the budget relative to prior years, it still suffers the same problem that budgets have for decades. Here is one of the main points from an overview from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget:

We commend the Administration for having a specific fiscal goal, but we believe that if the economy is performing as projected, there should be a more aggressive deficit reduction plan. Although smaller than current levels, a $533 billion deficit is still larger than at any time in the post-war era. Furthermore, under the President's budget, deficits begin to get worse after FY2013, reaching $712 billion in FY2019. We are disappointed that they lay out a fiscal goal that is achieved by how they construct the baseline rather than specific policy changes.

I would prefer that the CRFB had focused on the size of the deficit relative to GDP (like this), but the point is valid. The CRFB's document is a very good one -- I recommend the whole thing.

* The full sentence is, "The economy contracted by a stunning 6.2 percent in the final three months of 2008, its worst showing in a quarter-century." This statement is false. The economy contracted at a 6.2 percent annual rate in the last three months of 2008. In order to contract by 6.2 percent, it would have to continue to average that rate of contraction for 3 more quarters.