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November 3, 2005
Secret Code In Budget Deficit Foretells Alien Invasion!

The irony proved too delicious to pass unnoticed.

The National Press Foundation agreed to host a joint seminar on media coverage of the budget crisis, sponsored and initiated by the Heritage Foundation and the Brookings Institution in order to promote wider and more in-depth coverage of the expanding monetary gap. Journalists, policymakers, and one lowly blogger (yours truly) came as guests and speakers to discuss the causes of the budget crisis and why the media has so much trouble engaging public attention on it.

However, when attendees and presenters alike arrived at the National Press Club, they found a separate event scheduled as a special luncheon, square in the middle of the budget-crisis seminar. Ambassador Joe Wilson would make an appearance and give a talk about his exploits in Niger and as a gadfly to the Bush administration. We received a first-hand practical lesson on attention spans when some of the press attending the seminar started turning up missing shortly before noon.

The lesson? Dont expect school to outdraw the circus.

A good portion of the media stayed with the seminar, however, and for good reason. Heritage and Brookings had lined up some excellent presenters, especially David Walker, the GAOs comptroller general and a dynamic speaker who clearly explained the biggest problem facing American fiscal security: the demographic bomb coming in the next generation and the financing of Medicare as a result. While we have focused on Social Security as a crisis, it pales in comparison to government-provided health care costs. Projections show that Medicare will wind up costing eight times more than Social Security over a long range period, and that was before the Bush administration added Part D for prescription-drug benefits.

Another telling moment: Mr. Walker remained to the very end of the seminar, listening intently from a front-row seat after his initial presentation. Normally, the GAO chief would be on the move after giving a speech, but he stayed to the end, hoping to hear how to get the public engaged in the crisis.

Two succeeding panels debated the causes and cures for the budget ills themselves, consisting of policy wonks, past and present, who talked about revenue enhancements and spending caps. Translated for the non-expert, that means higher taxes and benefit cuts. Everyone agreed that the American economy could not possibly grow its way out of the coming disaster and that the solution would come from a mix of the two different solutions, but that mix had competing experts shaking their heads and muttering under their breath. The tension between the various speakers made the budget debate more visceral and interesting than any reporter or blogger could have hoped.

And yet, when it came time for the journalist/blogger panel to speak, Joe Wilsons Traveling Sideshow had arrived. Amazingly, a good number of attendees stuck around, along with David Walker, to hear how difficult it is to write about the budget in ways that interest readers and more importantly, to interest editors who believe that their readers have no patience for the details of long-term debt ratios, explicit liabilities and implicit exposures, PAYGOs and spending triggers. We debated the ways in which we could cover the many necessary details that could make them as interesting as well, as a true-life spy story gone awry.

Fortunately, inspiration struck this lowly blogger at that moment. The best way to make the details come alive is to make them the entire story. We need to take a page from the Joe Wilson playbook and turn the budget into a long-running mystery in which the details dribble out piecemeal, with some hint of several possible backstories that could embarrass politicians of either or both parties.

No, wait thats actually what we have now.

What would work better would be a good conspiracy theory a notion that selected details, taken out of context, will tell a story that people can convince themselves will grant them some knowledge denied the rest of the plebes. Journalists who want to get column inches for budget stories need to create a Da Vinci Code for the United States budget, a National Treasure for Medicare. Enough coverage might convince readers that the details, when rearranged in one certain but naggingly inascertainable way, will lead to some hidden, vast store of wealth. Overnight, the American public will make themselves experts on budget shortfalls and expanding entitlements, compound interest payments on national debt, and unfunded liabilities. As journalists and bloggers, we could feed the notion that those who immerse themselves in the mystery could find the path to a fortune that could change the world if it ever came to light.

The biggest irony will be that if we succeed in actually engaging the American electorate in such a manner, that fiction might actually wind up being the truth.

Thanks to Heritage Foundation and Mark Tapscott for getting me an invitation to speak at the event, which will eventually be available through the Heritage website. I'll be reviewing some of the material later as we cover more budget items.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at November 3, 2005 8:11 PM

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That tension, of course, presages a coming national debate that could make the Watergate and Bork confirmation clashes look like exercises in civics civility. [Read More]

Tracked on November 5, 2005 7:05 AM

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