Apr
01
2010

Deficit Fascinates Media--Its Causes, Not So Much

Bush tax cuts seldom mentioned as source of red ink

The role of George W. Bush’s tax cuts in the current federal deficit is tremendous. Their role in corporate media’s current round of deficit obsession, however, is tenuous at best. Sometimes acknowledged in editorials or op-eds, the cuts generally only make it into news reports as assertions from the White House or Democrats, rather than established and relevant economic fact.

CBPP chartElite papers lately issue near daily alarms on the deficit—“gargantuan,” “unprecedented,” “unimaginable a few years ago.” Virtually all accounts speak portentously of the costs of benefit programs like Social Security, often described as “the main causes for expanding federal spending and deficits” (Washington Post, 3/1/10) or “the major factor behind projections of unsustainably high deficits” (New York Times, 1/26/10)—and sometimes, dismayingly, as “goodies” (New York Times, 2/7/10).

But even the most discerning reader might not suspect that, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains (2/17/10), “just two policies dating from the Bush administration—tax cuts and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan...will account for almost $7 trillion in deficits in 2009 through 2019,” impacts that “easily dwarf the stimulus and financial rescues.”

A December 14, 2009 piece in the Washington Post identified the current brouhaha as a strategy of “Republicans seeking to make growing federal deficits a focal point of the 2010 elections.” That awareness is missing from most Post reporting on the subject, which still has room for such things as Alan Simpson’s lament (2/17/10): “How did we get to a point in America where you get to a certain age in life, regardless of net worth or income, and you’re ‘entitled’? The word itself is killing us.”

When mention of Bush-era contributions to the present deficit occurs, it’s most often in comments from presumably interested parties like Obama (Washington Post, 2/2/10) or White House budget director Peter Orszag (Washington Post, 2/1/10). Meanwhile, references to the need to curtail the White House’s “lavish aspirations” (Washington Post, 1/26/10) or “the massive federal entitlement programs—including Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security—that threaten to drive the nation’s debt to levels not seen since World War II” (Washington Post, 1/20/10) are in the reporter’s own voice.

deficit chartThe New York Times is aware that a debate on the deficit that omits mention of Bush’s cuts is disingenuous, as editorials like “The Truth About the Deficit” (2/7/10) attest. This knowledge remains hermetically sealed in the paper’s editorial department, however, and MIA where it might be useful—for instance, following a statement about how “a deficit at $1.6 trillion” is a strong reason why “leading Republicans ...argued that Mr. Obama could hardly claim credit for improvements in the economy” (New York Times, 2/18/10).

A January 27 Times piece ended with the phrase, “considering much of the nation’s debt is the result of spending and tax cuts during the years up to 2007 when Republicans controlled both the White House and Congress.” To date, no articles have begun that way.