NYT Non-News Story Says It’s Time to Tighten Belts

The New York Times (11/23/09) has an editorial on its front page today disguised as a news story.

Appearing under the headline “Federal Government Faces Balloon in Debt Payments,” Times business reporter Edmund Andrews makes an impassioned plea for the neo-Hooverist economics popular in corporate media: Claiming that “the government faces a payment shock similar to those that sent legions of overstretched homeowners in default on their mortgages,” Andrews maintains that “there is little doubt that the United States’ long-term budget crisis is becoming too big to postpone.”

There’s not a lot of news in this ostensible news article; it appears to be largely based on the Office of Management and Budget’s Mid-Session Review, which came out on August 25. And many of the facts derived therefrom are dubious or misleading; for example, the piece claims that “government debt has almost doubled in the last two years alone”; actually, gross federal debt is estimated at $12.9 trillion in 2009, and was $8.9 trillion in 2007; that’s a far cry from almost doubling.

What’s not in the piece or in the government forecast is anything to back up the idea that the federal debt situation is akin to an overstretched homeowner about to default on a mortgage; as economist Dean Baker (Beat the Press, 11/23/09) points out, “There is no evidence presented in this article that the rise in interest rates will place the U.S. government in a situation where it will be unable to pay its bills and no one cited in this article makes such a claim.”

But Andrews’ piece is not really about evidence so much as it about the personal intuition that just as individuals need to tighten their belts in hard times, so too should the federal government. As Andrews writes:

Americans now have to climb out of two deep holes: as debt-loaded consumers, whose personal wealth sank along with housing and stock prices; and as taxpayers, whose government debt has almost doubled in the last two years alone, just as costs tied to benefits for retiring baby boomers are set to explode.

It’s natural to conclude that frugality is the necessary penance to pay for profligacy–even more natural for Edmund Andrews, who wrote a whole book about his family’s debt woes. Applying that intuition to federal fiscal policy, however, is disastrous–that’s why Herbert Hoover is supposed to be your model of how not to respond to a financial crisis.

And if you talk to economists, chances are that at least some of them will point out to you that deficit reduction is not what the United States needs right now. For example, you could talk to economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who writes in the same edition of the paper (11/23/09), “Most economists I talk to believe that the big risk to recovery comes from the inadequacy of government efforts: The stimulus was too small, and it will fade out next year, while high unemployment is undermining both consumer and business confidence.” (Give the Times credit for including some op-ed antidote to its front-page poison.)

But as Andrews’ piece is an editorial only appearing by accident on the front page, he doesn’t feel obligated to quote anyone who might question his instinct for austerity. Instead he talks to the Concord Coalition, the vehicle billionaire Pete Peterson uses to express his opposition to government spending, and to a manager of the world’s largest bond fund, who warns us against eating our nuts.

The piece closes by quoting the Treasury Borrowing Advisory Committee–IDed by Andrews as a group of “private-sector…market experts”–as saying that inflation ought to be our big worry and “fiscal prudence” our watchword. Who is this committee, actually? It’s chaired by someone from JP Morgan Chase, its vice chair is from Goldman Sachs, and its members include a representative of Peterson’s Blackrock group–among other agents of the world’s financial elite.

Maybe Andrews thinks these folks have nothing but the best interests of the nation on their mind. But before he issued a front-page call for deficit-cutting in the midst of the deepest slump since the Great Depression, maybe he could’ve gotten a second opinion.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.