Post Hoc Fallacy

Wednesday’s Washington Post deserves some kind of perverse award for advocacy journalism—in this case, for advocating the proposition that dire economic consequences will ensue if the congressional Super Committee fails to cut a deal for drastic deficit reduction. This is, of course, one side of an argument.

Those on the other side, including myself, have argued that austerity in a deep recession makes no economic sense and that as a matter of politics, the Obama administration would be far better advised to let the automatic sequester formula take effect, knowing that it would have to be reopened because of Republicans’ horror of deep defense cuts and the expiration of the Bush tax cuts.

Moreover, Social Security does not belong in this conversation, and Democrats are better off, substantively and politically, defending it against Republican proposed cuts rather than lumping it in with budget talks.

But I digress. The Post has been an editorial champion of the Super Committee and austerity politics, and of the bogus claim that Social Security is partly responsible for the current deficit, which has seeped into the news coverage of the predictably biased Lori Montgomery.

In yesterday’s Post, the lead piece on deficit politics, by Montgomery and Rosalind Henderman, includes the subtitle, “Pressure mounts from all sides as deadline nears.” Reading the piece, we learn that “talks have focused on a tax package of as much as $650 billion over the next decade”—a Republican claim that the Post took at face value in order to drum up support for the deal. The Republican arithmetic has been thoroughly demolished by Bob Greenstein, whose analysis was just a keystroke away from Montgomery’s wishful keyboard.

The tone of the piece was negotiators from both parties being buffeted by extremes, preventing a sensible deal.

A companion piece, by Ann Kornblut, was headlined, “White House Girds for Failure.” It cites White House officials as “privately pessimistic,” but publicly “hopeful.” OMB Director Jack Lew is quoted, “I think it’s important that they succeed.” Again, the subtext of the piece is that the economy really needs this deal.

But the absolute corker is a companion piece by Neil Irwin and Ylan Q. Mui, with the economically absurd headline and premise, “Supercommittee could add uncertainty to holiday shopping.”

The writers quote leaders of trade associations saying that the committee needs to act to restore confidence. This is Paul Krugman’s famous "confidence fairy." Irwin and Mui write, “If the panel misses its Thanksgiving deadline, the deliberations could cast a cloud over the holiday shopping season, which accounts for over 40 percent of sales for some businesses.”

So let’s get this straight. If the committee does agree to cut the budget by some $1.2 trillion, including people’s Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, that will make them more likely to go out and shop. But if the committee fails to extract cuts—putting off budget austerity until 2013—that will make people more hesitant to spend? Where do these people study their economics?

And just in case the reader still hasn’t gotten the message that Congress is dithering in the face of impending disaster, there is a fourth piece, by David Fahrenthold, offering a snarky glossary of how the Super Committee process works, with even-handed jabs at both parties.

E.J. Dionne alone contradicted the Post storyline in a terrific column arguing for a balanced approach to deficit-reduction.

The Post editorial page took a break from its relentless crusade for austerity; an editorial would have been redundant.

You can just imagine the morning assignment, with the editors asking how many different ways the Post can get out this message in its supposed news columns. Pete Peterson, who is underwriting some of the Post’s fiscal coverage via a partnership with the Peterson-funded propaganda organ Fiscal Times, did not need to be in the room. He was there in spirit.