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James Bryson Hyatt

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LA Port Strike: 'A Billion Here, a Billion There...'

Posted: 12/05/2012 6:12 pm

"... And pretty soon you're talking real money."

Maybe Everett McKinley Dirksen really said it, but at this point in political history it doesn't matter. This is a great quote we've willed into legitimacy.

And really, there's no harm done if Dirksen didn't exactly say all those words. The sentence describes the Washington budgeting process briefly, with insight and color, and that's why we embrace it.

On the flip side, journalists need to do a better job vetting the billion-dollar figure when it comes to estimating the costs of the Port of Los Angeles/Port of Long Beach strike (which appears to be settled as of Wednesday, Dec. 5).

This $1-billion-a-day figure was trotted out quickly and promoted widely, because it's attention-getting. And possibly, because it serves certain political objectives.

But it's not accurate.

Any journalist at all familiar with basic economics might have bothered to double- or even triple-check that estimate. ("Wow. Seems like a lot of money. I wonder where that came from...")

There's no doubt the strike hasn't been great for the local, regional or even national economy. Businesses and people have suffered financial discomfort.

But has it really a-billion-dollar-a-day bad?

Not according to international trade economist Jock O'Connell, who says he's likely the source of that poorly-contextualized estimate.

KPCC reporter Ben Bergman actually bothered to do his homework. Turns out O'Connell had mentioned in an early-days strike story the ports handled about a billion dollars worth of materials a day -- which isn't at all the same thing as costing our economy that same amount.

"That was not what I meant. Clearly the billion dollars or so of cargo that would have moved through the port had it been open is not going be dumped into the harbor," O'Connell told Bergman this week.

It's true -- no one knows the strike's exact cost. That might not be known for weeks, possibly months. Again, it won't be great news for the economy.

Even if it's going to be bad news, let's at least be accurate.

 

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