Regular readers know I write lots of items that use charts, graphs and numbers. That’s not because I’m a big fan of arithmetic – I was actually a terrible math student, as my K-12 teachers will attest – but rather because, as a political reporter, numbers offer an avenue to get past spin.
I know that old line about “damn lies and statistics,” and I realize numbers can be massaged and shaded. But that’s where, hopefully, professional reporting skills come in – and thanks to WPRI 12′s continued investment in local news, I have the time to try and really understand the numbers I’m looking at and find the ones that matter. A political leader can tell us he’s investing in education or cutting spending – but what do the actual audited figures show?
I bring all this up because The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, who helped create the professional public-policy blogger gig, explained this philosophy simply and nicely in a post today about President Obama’s budget:
I love budgets. And not just because I love tables, charts and appendixes — though, to be clear, I do. I love budgets because they force us to run the numbers, to make trade-offs, to set priorities. The annual budget is, frankly, about as honest as the government ever gets with itself, and with the American people.
Update: A reader writes in to argue Klein’s point is actually more valid on the state and local level:
I like Ezra Klein’s quote, but it’s not 100% accurate. Since the federal government can run deficits, the trade-offs aren’t as direct (since the impact of deficits aren’t clearly felt or recognized by the average citizen). When you do it as a state and have to balance the budget, then the trade-offs are much clearer.