What Journalists Know


Very few journalists understand how politics work. Even fewer have a clue how governments work. Almost none grasp the complexities of public policy. Not surprising – they were never trained to know and were actively discouraged from taking part. Even when they have acquired some understanding, they assume none of their readers and listeners are interested or capable of following them, so they dumb it down. Better to report on a well-developed cliché than do any deep analysis. It improves your chance of hosting your own show or appearing on page one.

Take the recent response of reporters to the Federal budget. Their initial reaction was to focus on the deficit and on the ‘path to a balanced budget.’ They also noticed that the budget was a lot shorter than in previous years. Deep.

Of course, it wasn’t a lot shorter. The government had provided two volumes – the first the budget proper and the second the fiscal background, which they knew that no-one but policy wonks would care about. They also thinned down the political rhetoric – though they certainly didn’t eliminate it. Maybe the question should have been: why were Conservative budgets so needlessly long?

It is the fiscal analysis that gets at the issue of the deficit and the debt. It is pointless to talk about raw numbers, since, because of inflation and economic growth, they aren’t based on the same calculation from year to year. Think of it this way. In 1980 you made $20,000 but spent $30,000. You had a deficit of $10,000 or 50% of your income. In 2010, you made $60,000 but spent $75,000 (by now your banker should be worried). You had a deficit of $15,000 but that was only 25% of your income. Not good, but better.

But here is the number that really counts. In 1980, you ran your first debt so your total debt was 50% of your income. This puts you in a position similar to France. But in 2010, your debt (let’s say you overspent by $10,000 a year) has reached $300,000 which is now 500% of your income. This places you in roughly the position of Argentina just before the country went bankrupt. By the way, if you are worried about government debt in Canada, you should be terrified by personal debt which now stands at 164% of disposable income. Fortunately most of that debt is in mortgages.

Canada’s current debt to income (GDP) ratio is 31% (this is only federal debt; count in provincial debt and it’s not so rosy) one of the best in the world – much better than our European and North American friends. You might think this is because of the fiscal prudence of the previous Conservative governments but you would be wrong. While the Conservatives did shrink the ratio initially – though not as quickly as the previous Martin government had – it began to rise again in 2008. While the Conservatives claim to have left the country in surplus, it was accomplished, if at all, through financial tricks that actually left the country in worse shape than it had been even a year or two before. It was, as they say, good politics but lousy policy.

The current fiscal plan is a steady state one. The debt ratio won’t rise – though it won’t fall either. Given the huge contingency fund, the low estimate of the price of oil and the pessimistic forecasts for economic growth, the deficits might actually be smaller than projected – or the government may have the fiscal room to fulfill those of their election promises, like homecare, left out of this budget, without running up big bills.

But that – the real story – is apparently too hard to explain or to figure out how to dig into. So, when they interview the PM or the Minister of Finance, they constantly interrupt and return to the tired old shibboleths of the evils of the deficit, as they were trained to do by Reform and Conservative rhetoric — Stockholm (or Stockwell Day) syndrome, maybe. Meanwhile they let the opposition blather on with nary a question even when the union-bashing, poverty-shaming neo-con Ms Ambrose spouts Tea Party language – calling the request for the rich to pay their share “class warfare.” They are only slightly tougher on Mr. Mulcair. Maybe they just feel sorry for them both, since neither of them are likely to be leaders for long.

Journalists need to up their game and trust their audiences to follow along. Or just give up and admit they take their orders from on high. And, though I’m writing this on Easter, I don’t mean from Jesus.

And that’s a bit more than ten minutes.

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