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A stimulus bill by any other name is...?

ASK THIS | February 20, 2009

How to define the newly-enacted $785-billion bill? Is it a bailout bill? A jobs bill? Is it pork? Reporters and editors need to reject political spin and be precise because from day to day they will, in large degree, be defining the current economic debate.

By Martin Lobel

Because the words reporters and editors choose will define the current economic debate, they need to make sure their readers understand what those words mean.

Congress has passed a $785 billion bill. Is it a bailout bill? A jobs bill? A stimulus bill? Or is it a pork barrel bill? Same dollars, same bill. Different concepts—and wildly different meanings.

If there is agreement that the government must spend money to stimulate the economy and create or save jobs, when does it become a pork barrel bill? When the money isn’t spent to support your constituents or campaign contributors? What role does ideology or economic thinking play in the definition of the bill?

Is it more or less stimulative to spend the money on rebuilding our infrastructure or cutting taxes on corporations that have no profits and large inventories to encourage investment in productive capacity? What role does politics play in defining the bill? Are the Republicans so against the bill because they think it won’t work by midterm elections and thus will be in position to say “I told you so” – or do many of them believe that cutting taxes is still the solution to our economic problems? Or are they motivated more by a fear that if the bill succeeds, that’s bad for them politically?

Although no one seems to know what the specifics are of the government’s plan to free up the credit markets, it is almost certain to cost lots of money and raise issues of whether we should let financial institutions fail or put taxpayer money into them. If we put in so much taxpayer money that the government can control these financial institutions, will this be considered “nationalization” (bad) or an “investment” (good). Why shouldn’t the taxpayers be treated like any other investor? What justification exists for deviating from the golden rule: “Those that got the gold, rule.”

If we limit compensation of the executives and employees who got these financial institutions in trouble to $500,000 a year, which most of us would be only too satisfied to accept, will it cause them to leave? If so, where will they go? Who will hire them? What impact will it have on the financial institutions? Will the impact of such a salary ceiling have a good or bad impact on the sense of entitlement these executives seem to have? How are we going to unwind the derivatives that got so many of these financial institutions in trouble at a fair market price? How are we going to prevent or control the development the non-transparent instruments in unregulated markets in the future? How do we balance the need for transparency against the need to protect investment strategies? What kind of regulatory reform is needed to promote safe and efficient credit markets? What steps are needed to make boards of directors represent investors rather than management? Should directors, who are fiduciaries, be held personally liable for failure to manage when management has brought the company to the verge of bankruptcy?

These are important questions, the questions of the day. The need is for solid mainstream reporting. For reporters to learn as much as they can on their own and to find knowledgeable, trustworthy sources—not only politically partisan ones.

Legitimate journalists try to be accurate, but sometimes, under the increasing pressures to get the story out quickly, reporters and editors accept words that have been fed to them without thinking about the implications, or, often, without having the space to explain the implications. This is particularly true on TV where a significant story might get a minute fifteen. Given the declining media economics, pressure is likely to get worse, which means individual journalists have an even greater responsibility to get it right the first time by thinking through the implications of the words they use.

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