July 11, 2008

AP Selectively Rounds in Coverage of Monthly Treasury Report

The Associated Press’s Jeannine Aversa “creatively” and selectively rounded figures presented in today’s Monthly Treasury Statement from Uncle Sam. That Treasury report, released this afternoon, covered monthly and year-to-date receipts and spending in the federal government.

By doing what she did, Aversa made sure we know that year-to-date receipts are down, but at the same time made Congress’s overspending look less serious than it really is.

Here’s the paragraph in question from her “Budget deficit up in first 9 months of budget year” report:

Spending of $2.2 trillion so far this year is up from $2.1 trillion reported for the corresponding period last year. Meanwhile, revenues of $1.93 trillion are down from $1.945 trillion a year ago.

Because Aversa rounded off the spending numbers to the nearest $.1 trillion while not supplying percentage changes, the average reader will think that spending is up a bit less than 5% so far this year.

Not exactly:



July 16 Note: Due to the discovery of a Treasury Department weekly release on stimulus payments issued (example here), I have determined that June’s and year-to-date stimulus payments were $28.291 and $78.329 billion, instead of the $27.682 billion and $77.471 billion shown above. I had previously been adding totals from Daily Treasury Statements, and cannot explain why there is a difference. This changes the June 2008 receipts increase over June 2007 to 4.2% instead of 4.1%. It does not change the 2008 vs. 2007 year-to date receipts increase of 3.4%. None of what follows at the original post, which resumes after this insertion, needed to be changed, and has not been changed.


On the receipts side, Aversa went to two decimal places with this year’s number, and to three with last year’s. Why? Of course I don’t know for sure, but it is convenient that by doing so she made the reported reduction in receipts look slightly larger than it really is.

The spending side is more bothersome. Aversa should have been consistent in how far to the right of the decimal point she went in reporting receipts and disbursements; that is a fundamental expectation in financial reporting. But she wasn’t. As you can see above, by reporting fiscal 2007′s year-to-date spending as $2.1 trillion, she made a 6.6% spending increase look like 4.8%.

That’s subtle, but effective, if your objective is to minimize the overspending going on in Congress. The spending increase percentage is 37% (6.6% divided by 4.8%) bigger than Aversa made it appear.

I also take issue with how the economic stimulus checks are being handled from a reporting standpoint, but my problem there is more with Uncle Sam, who considers the stimulus payments to be “tax refunds,” than it is with the media reporting, which merely follows the government line. As I said when I covered last month’s Monthly Treasury Statement (at NewsBusters; at BizzyBlog):

I would argue that the stimulus payments should really be treated as a form of spending, as there is no correlation between what individuals and families paid in income taxes and the stimulus payments/”economic aid” they have received or will receive. If I recall correctly, even those who paid no income taxes have received or will receive payments, while many relatively well-off taxpayers who paid in a great deal will receive nothing.

As you can see in the table above, receipts before deducting the stimulus payments are actually up over 3.4% through the first nine months of fiscal 2008. That’s not impressive, but I believe it’s a more accurate rendition of how collections are going than deducting the stimulus payments — which, after all, are “payments.”

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.


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