‘Real terms’ is one of the most brilliant and powerful examples of framing in public discourse.
Spin alert! It’s Budget day in the UK, when the nation finds out the Government’s plans for taxation, borrowing and expenditure for the coming year.
Like finance ministers the world over, George Osborne is likely to trumpet the good news and keep the bad hidden away in the small print. But look out for a more subtle piece of framing by the Opposition – the use of ‘real terms’ figures to prove that higher government spending = cuts.
Government spending in the UK is due to increase from £697bn now to £757bn in 2016. The media call this “cuts”. Why? Inflation will erode the value of this money, with the later figure able to buy 4% less than the current figure by the time it is spent.
If you’re the government spending the money, you get less sound for your £ and it feels like a cut. But if you’re a taxpayer, you still have to find the extra £60bn cash – out of an income that won’t necessarily rise simply because inflation is higher.
So ‘real terms’ figures are favoured by unions, opposition politicians, and pressure groups that favour generosity on the part of government. The term skews the debate in favour of higher spending. It makes modest increases in government expenditure sound like vicious cuts. It is one of the most brilliant and powerful examples of framing in public discourse.