Well, so much for “fair and balanced” journalism. The Seattle Times objectively reports on Gov. Christine Gregoire’s budget proposal:
Shortly after the November election, when it was clear Democrats would hold overwhelming majorities in the Legislature, Gov. Christine Gregoire vowed to keep lawmakers on a “fiscally prudent” path and to impose discipline if needed.
Now, some people hope legislators can restrain the governor from embarking on a $4 billion spending spree.
There is absolutely nothing objective about this lede. Perhaps it was poorly phrased, but whatever the intent, the Times’ mischaracterization of Gov. Gregoire’s budget as a “spending spree” will be understood by most readers as a statement of fact. Furthermore, by presenting the Governor’s proposed budget in opposition to her previous vow to be “fiscally prudent,” the Times clearly implies that she is not.
This is the Republican frame, and the Times reporters have swallowed it hook, line and sinker. The lede is also entirely consistent with the equally leading headline: “Governor’s big spending plan: Can we afford it?” The spending plan? Big. Can we afford it? Well, if you have to ask the price….
Don’t bother reading beyond the headline and the first couple paragraphs (and understand that most readers won’t,) the very language of the Times’ reporting serves to reinforce a frame that has been decades in the making. And as George Lakoff famously observes, if the facts don’t fit the frame, most people discard the facts and keep the frame.
As I have insisted many times before, there is a legitimate debate to be had over the proper size and scope of government — but “reporting” like this makes such a debate impossible. This article is based on an assumption — that projected budget deficits are due to profligate government spending — an assumption that if left unchallenged and unrefuted virtually assures the status quo: a government that continues to fall further and further behind its obligations.
The article also presents a faulty and simplistic methodology for measuring government growth. Nobody is arguing that the state government isn’t growing larger in terms of total employees or dollars spent. But these measurements are meaningless when presented outside the context of growth in the overall state economy. Indeed, despite its 12.2 percent growth, Gov. Gregoire’s biennial budget actually represents a smaller percentage of our state economy than any of the six biennial budgets that precede it.
Think about it. If state spending were to double over the next decade, but the state economy were to grow at twice that rate, then the government would effectively shrink in half when measured as a percentage of the overall economy. And since the metric that most closely tracks growth in demand for government services is growth in personal income, this smaller government (relative to the overall economy) would grow increasingly incapable of meeting the demands placed upon it.
Thus, if you are a proponent of smaller government, do nothing, for without substantial tax restructuring a smaller government is exactly what we are going to get. This is because our current tax system is structurally incapable of growing tax revenues at a pace equal to growth in the overall economy, because we tax a smaller and smaller portion of our economy every passing year.
That is a fact.
But you won’t read this fact in the newspaper. That’s because this fact is wonky. It’s complicated. It’s difficult to understand and explain.
And it doesn’t fit the frame.