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Washington Post Debt Obsession Spawns Year-End Lamentation

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Yesterday, the Washington Post's Lori Montgomery, as is her wont, summed up the past year with a lengthy lamentation about how Congress didn't do enough to tame federal deficits, leaving her debt-obsessed editors sad and unfulfilled, I suspect. She tells the story through the eyes of Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.), who we are told "helped change the way Washington talks about the national debt" but has not "done much about the debt itself."

How Ribble "helped change the way Washington talks" about this debt is never explained, but that's who Montgomery got "access to," and the rest of the piece follows from there into a thicket of fuzzy speculation over what went wrong, eventually settling on the lack of "leadership" and the bad messaging. Here's a reminder about how to decode political journalism, by the way: when a piece spends the bulk of its time talking about "messaging" and "language," go ahead and click to close the tab, because you're reading a report from a reporter who would rather take a short cut into Beltway ephemera than contend with the actual experiences of actual people.

For example, this doesn't sound like a real problem that real Americans are experiencing in America, to me:

Maya MacGuineas, president of the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, has been searching for ways to break through to voters. "I was talking to a pollster the other day. He said, 'The problem is your language. It's all about austerity. You have to make it about aspiration.' I was like, 'Really? I'm pretty sure we need to talk about austerity. Because it's not going to be all peaches and ice cream when we do this.'"

In a perfect world, MacGuineas said, she imagines a presidential address recalling "important moments in history when we made huge decisions that propelled the country forward or screwed us up for years. We're at one of those moments."

When I think about the bad "messages" being sent, I don't think about the need for a shift in euphemism or playing games with the connotative nature of various vocabulary words. I think about that time one faction in Congress spent months literally threatening the global economy with default over the debt ceiling. I suspect that this is what Montgomery means by "changing the way Washington talks about the deficit," but in any event, it should be noticed that this "new way of talking" is more commonly known as "running around the streets in a screeching fit of bare-assed lunacy."

Nevertheless, if you seriously believe that everything would fall into place and America's lingering economic problems would be solved if politicians started changing the adjectives they use in public statements, then you probably have a bright future in journalism. But I think this statement Montgomery got from Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) gets us a wee bit closer to the truth:

"[The American people] believe you should balance the budget," Conrad said. "But when it comes down to doing the things that need to be done to accomplish that, they don't support them. Until the American people believe we need to change some things, it's unlikely we're going to accomplish them here."

But it's not the American people who suffer from the disconnect here, it's lawmakers and the people who cover them. I really don't know how many times I have to explain this, but let's have another go: the American people, again and again, whenever they are asked, tell people that their number one priority is unemployment. And no matter how often the media tries to disguise this fact and attempt to make it sound like the public is just as deficit-obsessed as they are -- and they do try to do just that! -- it all comes back to unemployment, and the practiced way everyone ignores it. As Clifford Marks reported in May:

Major U.S. newspapers have increasingly shifted their attention away from coverage of unemployment in recent months while greatly intensifying their focus on the deficit, a National Journal analysis shows.

The analysis -- based on a measure of how often the words "unemployment" and "deficit" appear in major publications -- portrays a dramatically shifting landscape of coverage over the past two years, as the debate over how to fix the federal deficit has risen to prominence and the question of how to handle still-high unemployment has faded from the media's consciousness.

Here is a chart that makes this clear:

This dynamic remained unaltered until October, which is when large groups of unemployed people started standing around in public parks, refusing to leave until someone acknowledged that they existed. That's when having access to poor people suddenly, briefly, became the hot, new thing to have, and lo ... it came to pass that the news started talking about income inequality and unemployment and such! And all the people who gave trillions of dollars to bail out the financial industry had to do was get bludgeoned and pepper-sprayed by police.

Despite needlessly and baselessly suggesting that Montgomery's article is "terrific," Ezra Klein seems to understand that all the time lost to dithering on the trajectory of federal deficits was nothing compared to all the time lost to the short-term crisis that is killing the American people:

There has been less done for the jobless than for the deficit. After all, the debt-ceiling deal did lead to $900 billion in cuts to domestic discretionary spending, and to the spending trigger that threatens to make a trillion more in cuts starting in 2012. But the jobless? Save for a two-month extension of the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance benefits, they got nothing.

And unlike the deficit, which isn't yet causing problems in the American economy, joblessness is an ongoing crisis. The unemployment rate is 8.6 percent. If millions of discouraged workers hadn't left the labor force, it would likely be in the double digits. That's led to immense suffering for the unemployed and their families, and also less consumer spending, more foreclosures, and a general prolonging of the economic crisis.

Some argue that there's really no tension here at all. The best thing to do for the unemployed is reduce the deficit. But that's ideology talking. There are good reasons to want to reduce our long-term deficits, but accelerating short-term job growth isn't one of them. In a July 2011 paper, the International Monetary Fund -- which has unimpeachable deficit hawk credentials -- assessed 173 "fiscal adjustments" and concluded that "a 1 percent of GDP fiscal consolidation reduces real private consumption over the next two years by 0.75 percent, while real GDP declines by 0.62 percent." In other words, in the short term, austerity hurts the economy. There is no free lunch.

Klein sums up by saying that this year has been "like watching the doctors of a patient with acute pneumonia spend a year discussing the best way for the patient to lose weight." I'd say it's more like watching the crew of the Titanic deliberate on the long-term trajectory of deck chair expenditures while the passengers scramble around for the lifeboats they thought they'd purchased only to find that Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein are now considered "women and children," but really, either metaphor will do.

In this relationship between unemployment-ignoring lawmakers and unemployment-ignoring reporters, it's hard to know who is leading whom by the nose. That the media still occasionally responds to faddishness in the news cycle gives me some encouragement that they might break free if they really wanted to. So if Montgomery wants to pen a year-end lamentation, she should write about how sad she is to have missed the boat, and instead of suggesting that lawmakers need to start talking about aspiration, learn something about what actual Americans aspire to have in 2012. Namely, a job, with which they can attack their own household debt -- which is easily recognizable as America's real pressing problem, if only you deign to listen.

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