Reporting the Hidden Costs of Stimulus
CNNMoney.com ran a story today about some of the jobs saved or created by the stimulus package. “A civil engineer, Sara Kelley owes her job to President Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package,” it begins. Five other short vignettes follow, each with a name and a face that we can see and identify with. All six are thankful to the stimulus for helping them get through these troubled times.
All of these people clearly benefited from the stimulus package. But where did their free money come from? To help these fortunate people, others had to be hurt. Where are the stories about them?
When will we see a story about a company that was unable to raise job-creating capital because government bonds necessitated by stimulus debt ate up precious investor dollars? When will we see a story about a job that was never created because the government decided to take that money and use it on Sara Kelley’s civil engineering job?
The media is great about reporting on what is seen – Sara Kelley and the others. The media is not so good at reporting on what is not seen – opportunities taken away by the stimulus; opportunities that never came to be because the money they required was instead spent on Joab Gonzalez’s youth training program.
This does present some difficulties. You can’t put a name and a face on a company that was never founded, or a worker who was never hired. Just try and write about something that never happened. It’s hard.
Maybe it is asking too much of our reporters to see the unseen. But we live in a complicated world, and not all of it is visible. To report on that world as it actually is requires an understanding of sometimes-difficult economic concepts such as opportunity costs.
Economic journalists who don’t know basic economics too often write stories that are at best incomplete, and at worst misleading. Reporting only on what is seen leads to the impression that fiscal stimulus is a free lunch; seeing the unseen reminds us that there is no such thing.