Editorials

Fudged numbers reassuring; truth hurts

Under the headline "Costly Bill Seen as Saving Money," the San Francisco Chronicle two weeks ago began a front-page story with these words: "Many people find it hard to understand how the health care legislation heading for a decisive vote Sunday can cost $940 billion and cut the horrendous federal deficit at the same time."

It's not hard to understand at all. It is a lie.

What makes this particular lie pass muster with many people, who might otherwise use their common sense, is that the Congressional Budget Office vouched for the consistency of the budget numbers that say you can add millions of people to a government-run system and yet save money.

The CBO does honest work. But it can only use numbers Congress supplies - and Congress does dishonest work.

The Congressional Budget Office is like a computer: Garbage in, garbage out. The numbers in the health care bill are especially smelly garbage.

What we really need - and will never get - is a Congressional Off-Budget Office. This would be an agency that does not have to accept whatever numbers Congress sends them and pretend to take those numbers seriously.

An independent agency could add up all of the government's financial liabilities, whether they are in the official budget or not. For example, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which guarantees bank accounts, has only a fraction of the money that it is supposed to have on hand to see that people's life savings don't get wiped out when a bank fails.

No administration of either party is going to let people's life savings get wiped out. But none of the billions that will be necessary to pour into FDIC at some point, as banks continue to fail and the FDIC's reserves continue to shrink, appears in the official budget numbers the CBO sees.

It is a similar story with the Federal Housing Administration, which has what the Wall Street Journal calls "razor thin reserves" as it goes around the country, merrily guaranteeing ever larger mortgages for ever larger numbers of people, while 14 percent of those mortgages are already delinquent.

When the FHA is finally scraping the bottom of the barrel, where do you think that additional money it needs will come from? From taxpayers - current and future.

But none of this money is in the official federal budget that the Congressional Budget Office sees. There are many other financial liabilities of the government that are "off-budget," which means that they do not show up in the official numbers.

What if an individual operated this way? If you are 80 years old, and your assets balance your liabilities, you're in good shape, right? Wrong.

At your age, you know that there may be some big medical bills coming. The mountainous federal deficits that extend into the future, as far as the eye can see, are likely to set off inflation that will silently steal a big chunk of the value of whatever money you have put aside for your old age. But none of that shows up in numbers measuring your assets and liability.

What can you do? Unlike the federal government, you cannot just send your official numbers over to the Congressional Budget Office and have them announce that you are in great financial shape.

Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305.

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