To paraphrase my friend Brad DeLong, "why oh why do newspapers have to use meaningless numbers when it is so easy to provide information." Today's example is a Washington Post article about a new rule that requires people to show proof of citizenship before they can be covered by Medicaid.
The article includes much useful information and comments from both proponents and opponents of the rule. Then it tells us that the Congressional Budget Office estimates that this rule will save Medicaid $735 million over the next decade.
Great, everyone realize how much money that is? Okay, we know the Washington Post has an educated readership, but virtually none of their readers has any idea how important $735 million over the next decade is to the budget or their pocketbooks.
Let's suppose the reporters had taken a moment to look at projected spending for this period. CBO projects total spending over the next decade at $33.3 trillion, or approximately $111,000 per person. The potential savings from the tighter Medicare rules comes to approximately $2.50 per person, or 0.002 percent of projected spending over the next decade. In other words, the potential savings will have no visible impact on the budget, the deficit or the public's tax burden.
My guess is that most people who read the Post article do not recognize this fact. If the spending figure had been expressed as a share of the budget or a per person cost, readers would know this hugely important part of the story. What do newspapers have such an aversion to providing information? (Yes, I did blog on this before in reference to an NYT article.)