Saturday, January 22, 2005

Most expensive inauguration ever? Well, not exactly.

Perhaps you've seen some references to this year's being the most expensive inauguration ever. In case you missed it, here are some examples:
  • The New York Times: "And there was little effort to cloak the big-donor brunches and lavish corporate spending that made this inauguration, held at a time of a costly war, the most expensive in history."
  • Terence Smith hosting The News Hour with Jim Lehrer: "...the most expensive inauguration in history."
  • The Washington Post in a front page article: "...what is estimated to be the country's most expensive inauguration."
  • The Independent (apparently on its cover): "55th inauguration costs $40m, making it the most expensive ever." (Via the Daily Ablution, which notes the claim was on the paper's cover.)
  • More examples here and here.
It has become conventional wisdom.

Only one problem--it's not true. At least not once inflation is taken into account, which is the only reasonable way to look at the issue.

Of the most recent seven presidential inaugurations, this one fits right smack in the middle cost-wise. It's the median. Three cost more, three cost less, in real dollar terms.

Lest you doubt me, The Daily Ablution has done the research and has the figures.

Tempting as it is to attribute the rampant mis-reporting of this issue to anti-Bush bias in the main-stream media, I cannot lay it all on bias. Otherwise the press would not regularly pronounce a new blockbuster to be the "highest grossing movie of all time" without a thought to inflation adjustment.

So why was the misleading "most expensive inauguration ever" meme reported so often? Part of the problem is journalistic laziness; once an item gets reported enough it becomes conventional wisdom and people--even journalists--do not think to fact-check it. And perhaps part of the problem is economic illiteracy; but I think even mainstream journalists can often grasp the concept of inflation adjustment.

And yes, part of the problem is bias.