Commentary Magazine

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistical Deficits

Wikipedia Commons.

Someone in the 19th century (Mark Twain attributed it to Benjamin Disraeli, but that’s dubious) said that there are three forms of lying: lies, damned lies, and statistics. If you would like a beautiful example of the last category of mendacity, check out David Leonhardt’s April 15th column in the New York Times,  entitled (try not to laugh) “The Democrats Are the Party of Fiscal Responsibility.”

In it, he compared the deficits run up by each Democratic and Republican administration from Jimmy Carter on to the present with the GDP of that time. Precisely how he did this is anything but clear. Is he, perhaps, confusing the debt with the deficit? For instance, he has the ratio for George H. W. Bush’s term as 0.4 percentage points. But the total deficits in those years were $932 billion and the total GDP was $23.9 trillion. That’s 3.8 percentage points. And how the national debt could double in eight unprosperous years under Obama while the “change in deficit, in percentage points of GDP” went down 0.1 percent is totally mystifying

Thus, Leonhardt committed the cardinal sin of statistics: using obscure methodology, which is the way people lie with statistics—presuming they are not just making the numbers up.

Whatever his methodology, Leonhardt was comparing apples and oranges. For instance, he ignores such factors as the raging inflation of the Carter years, when income tax brackets were not adjusted for inflation, pushing people into higher and higher brackets when their real income had not increased at all (This, of course, was one of the reasons why Carter carried fewer states in 1980 than Herbert Hoover won in 1932).

Leonhardt implicitly ascribed to the president the power to shape the budget and, thus, the deficit. But presidents have been effectively bit players when it comes to federal spending levels since the wildly misnamed Budget Control Act of 1974. It was not Bill Clinton who slew the deficit dragon in the 1990’s but the Congress, which the public transferred to Republican control in 1994 for the first time in 40 years following an outcry over Democratic profligacy. The Republican Congress increased spending by a mere 18 percent between 1995 and 2000, while the roaring economy increased tax revenues by 51 percent.

Nor did Leonhardt take into account the phony accounting the federal government uses to obscure reality. Officially, we ran surpluses (meaning, by definition, that income exceeded outgo) in 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2001. But the national debt went up, not down, in each of those four years.

Nor did he take into account the fact that recessions cause government spending to go up and government revenues to go down—something quite beyond the control of Congress or the President. The brutal recession of the early 1980’s (when unemployment reached 10.8 percent), for instance, skewed Reagan’s numbers while Carter’s four years were largely recession-free.

There’s plenty of blame for both parties, of course. As Jesse Unruh famously said, “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” But in the last forty years, the only time the federal government made a serious, sustained effort to rein in the deficit was when a Republican Congress was writing the checks.

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