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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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April 1998


Imbalanced Budget Reporting
Guest Editorial, by Stephen Moore

It is the economics story of the year. Maybe of the decade. We finally have a balanced budget in Washington. The last time Congress balanced the budget was the fiscal year 1969 when LBJ was still in the White House. Since then weíve accumulated more than $4 trillion of national debt.

So this is a story of momentous accomplishment. But itís also a story that has been generally botched by the media. How did we get to a balanced budget? Whoís really responsible?

Most of the TV and print news stories on the balanced budget over the past six months have assigned the credit to the 1990 and 1993 budget deals ó especially the big tax increases. Thus George Bush and Bill Clinton allegedly are the heroes of this story. Last summer when the news first broke that we would have a balanced budget this year, The New York Times gushed that although Clinton deserves most of the praise for raising taxes in 1993, "George Bush was really the man who risked the most and paid the biggest price for cutting the deficit."

A February NPR story stated that the deficit skyrocketed in the 1980s because of Ronald Reaganís unaffordable tax cuts, but the red ink was cured by a series of heroic tax hikes in the 1990s. CNNís Bill Schneider reported that "President Bush, the Democratic Congress, failed candidates for president [like Walter Mondale] ó they are the unsung heroes of the balanced budget."

With "Taps" music playing in the background and patriotic visuals of the Washington Monument, Schneider made a tribute to the two Senate Democrats and 34 House Democrats who "stuck their necks out" and voted for Bill Clintonís 1993 tax increase.

This is certainly a heartwarming story of political courage, unfortunately, itís contradicted by the fiscal facts. These stories only perpetuate four common myths about the budget that careful reporters should avoid repeating.

Myth 1: The Reagan tax cuts caused the deficits while the 1990 and 1993 tax hikes helped balance the budget. In the 1980s federal tax receipts doubled from $517 billion to $1,031 billion. As I reported in The Wall Street Journal last summer, in the seven years following the Reagan tax cuts (1982-1989), total federal revenues adjusted for inflation grew at almost precisely the same pace (24.1 percent) as they did in the seven years (1990-1997) following the Bush-Clinton tax hikes (24.9 percent). In other words, the two huge tax increases did not produce significantly different rates of growth of revenues than did the Reagan tax cuts.

Myth 2: Clintonís 1993 budget set the federal government on the track to a balanced budget. The real turning point in the deficit was not in 1993, but in 1995. In March of 1995, the Congressional Budget Office predicted that the budget deficit would be $200 billion a year ó for as far as the eye could see. This was the Clintonomics baseline. Since the GOP took over Congress in 1995 the deficit has been cut by an aggregate $512 billion from this Clintonomics baseline. Few news stories have given any credit to Newt Gingrich or the Republican Congress for the balanced budget, even though the budget deficit stood at $203 billion the year they took control of Congress.

Myth 3: Reaganís policies caused the deficit, but had nothing to do with ending the era of red ink. The escalation of the budget deficit in the early and mid-1980s was primarily a result of the Reagan military buildup and expanding entitlement programs. But just as the deficit rose in the 1980s to finance the military expansion, the deficit has shrunk to zero in the 1990s primarily because of the peace-dividend from Reaganís Cold War victory.

Since 1987, military spending has fallen by three percent of GDP ó precisely the amount the deficit has fallen as a share of GDP. If Reaganís policies deserve the blame for causing the deficit in the 1980s, then they deserve equal credit for ending it in the 1990s. Incredibly, few reporters have even mentioned the shrinking military budget in balanced-budget stories this year.

Myth 4: Balancing the budget has come at the cost of neglecting important social programs. A recurring theme of many budget stories of 1998 has been that now that the budget is balanced, neglected social needs can again be a priority. This is the so-called "social investment deficit." Itís a farce. From 1987 to 1998, real domestic federal spending has soared by $328 billion, from $832 billion to $1,160 billion. This is a 39 percent increase in spending after inflation.

I am convinced that most of the misinformation on the budget spread by the media is a result of reporters neglecting to check the actual budget numbers and trends to validate their stories. Every year the Office of Management and Budget puts out a publication called Historical Tables of the U.S. Budget that contains a gold mine of basic data needed for almost any fiscal-related news story. In fact, every statistic in this MediaNomics report comes from that official document.

In fact, if you donít believe me, I urge you to look them up yourselves.

Stephen Moore is director of fiscal policy studies at the Cato Institute (www.cato.org).


ó Rich Noyes


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