Profiles in Error

By Megan McArdle

My ever-so-clever fiance illustrates why glossy mags should not do profiles of government officials:  they have no idea what the hell they're talking about.  In most cases, this doesn't matter, because celebrities don't have any idea, either; you can't actually screw up, say, Barbra Streisand's hazy and whimsical notions about foreign policy, or Jenny McCarthy's atrocious opinions on immunology.  Unfortunately, the CBO and the OMB do have a kind of logic, twisted though it may be, so it's an excellent place for reporters to go badly astray:

Richardson gets one of his few significant attempts at substance flat wrong. The piece begins in July, with its hero receiving bad news: Current CBO chief Doug Elmendorf tells Congress that health care reform will not bend the cost curve--in direct opposition to what Orszag has repeatedly said. At the end of the piece, however, all is resolved. October rolls around and the CBO decided that health care reform will "bend the cost-curve," and that it "will save the government at least $81 billion over ten years, maybe more."

Only one problem with that last bit: CBO never said any of it. Esquire's editors apparently can't tell the difference between bending the cost curve, spending less money, and reducing the deficit. These are not the same thing.

CBO did say that reform could reduce the deficit by $81 billion. But cutting the deficit is not the same as spending less. Indeed, it's possible to cut the deficit--which measures how much greater spending is than revenues--and spend a lot more. In fact, that's what reform calls for.

Nor has CBO said that reform will bend the cost curve. The last time CBO took a clear stand on the issue, the office said reform would bend the curve the wrong way. More recently, CBO has ducked the issue, saying it's not able to tell for sure. But Medicare's actuary says that reform is likely to increase medical spending.

In other words, Orszag never actually got the particular piece of good news the piece claims he did.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2009/12/profiles-in-error/31425/