Media outlets have focused heavily on the topics of deficits and debt, while largely ignoring economic growth during their coverage of the debt ceiling debate. However, experts agree that the need for growth is more pressing than problems of debt, and that growth itself can be a deficit reduction tactic.
A Media Matters study of television coverage over the past three weeks found that while pundits and guests focused heavily on discussing the debt ceiling, the topic of economic growth was sorely lacking. Of the total 273 segments analyzed, only 33 mentioned economic growth.
Instead of touching upon economic growth, Media Matters found that guests and hosts spent most of their discussions focusing on other issues, such as the role of entitlement spending and political leverage in negotiations between parties.
While the debt ceiling issue is certainly important - and failing to raise it would have a negative impact on the overall economy - many economists have eschewed the focus on debt, arguing instead that economic growth should be the primary concern.
Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has long argued that the media and political focus on debt is misguided, and that recent increases in debt were necessary to prevent the economy from entering another recession. Jared Bernstein, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, further argues that the focus on deficits and debt distracts policymakers from the very real problem of sustained high unemployment and a weak economy.
In fact, Krugman echoed Bernstein's point on the January 28 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe:
Perhaps the most interesting aspect about the absence of economic growth in discussions about the debt ceiling is the fact that economic growth is itself a deficit reduction tactic. Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich points out that focusing on pro-growth strategies has the advantage of reducing the deficit while growing the economy, as opposed to deep spending cuts that only focus on deficit reduction:
Our problem is lack of good jobs and sufficient growth, and our goal must be to revive both.
Deficit reduction leads us in the opposite direction -- away from jobs and growth.
But more jobs and growth will help reduce the deficit. With more jobs and faster growth, the deficit will shrink as a proportion of the overall economy. Recall the 1990s when the Clinton administration balanced the budget ahead of the schedule it had set with Congress because of faster job growth than anyone expected -- bringing in more tax revenues than anyone had forecast. Europe offers the same lesson in reverse: Their deficits are ballooning because their austerity policies have caused their economies to sink.
Reich provides the best argument for why economic growth should be at center stage in debt ceiling talks. Instead of cutting deficits for the sake of cutting deficits - which could plunge the economy back into recession - pro-growth strategies provide the benefit of both growth and deficit reduction.
Of course, the analyses of economists gain traction only if they are represented in the media. A previous Media Matters study of discussions over the so-called “fiscal cliff” found that the absence of economists on network television steered discussion of an inherently economic issue away from core economic concerns.
The Media Matters analysis of debt ceiling coverage shows a similar trend, as economists are, again, highly underrepresented relative to other types of guests.
Given this fact, it is unsurprising that economic growth has been largely ignored in the media. Of course, when economists were present, segments on the debt ceiling were more than twice as likely to bring up the need for economic growth.