SYNOPSIS: Another Bush slam.
It's confession season on the financial news. With many companies admitting that profits won't measure up to market expectations, programs like CNN's "Moneyline" have become painful to watch: night after night executives squirm as interviewers grill them about why earnings fell short of estimates. Needless to say, honest accounting is a given. After all, the interviewers do their homework — they would pounce on any obviously wrong numbers.
But I guess some people get special treatment.
I really, truly wasn't planning to write any more columns about George W. Bush's arithmetic. But his performance on "Moneyline" last Wednesday was just mind-blowing. I had to download a transcript to convince myself that I had really heard him correctly. It was as if Mr. Bush's aides had prepared him with a memo saying: "You've said some things on the stump that weren't true. Your mission, in the few minutes you have, is to repeat all of those things. Don't speak in generalities — give specific false numbers. That'll show them!"
First, Mr. Bush talked about the budget — "There's about $4.6 trillion of surplus projected," he declared, which is true, even if the projections are dubious. He then went on to say: "I want some of the money, nearly a trillion, to go to projects like prescription drugs for seniors. Money to strengthen the military to keep the peace. I've got some views about education around the world. I want to — you know, I've got some money in there for the environment."
Nearly a trillion? The budget statement released by the candidate's campaign three weeks ago shows total spending on new projects of $474.6 billion — less than half a trillion. Mr. Bush presumably wants to convey the sense that he's a compassionate guy who really cares about education, the environment and all that. But that doesn't excuse claiming to spend twice as much on these good things as the number given in his own budget.
He continued: "But there's still a quarter unspent, about $1.3 trillion [the size of Mr. Bush's tax cut]. I think we ought to send it back to the people who pay the bills." Alas, 4 times 1.3 is 5.2, not 4.6 — and anyway, the full budget cost of that tax cut, including interest, is $1.6 trillion, more than a third of the projected surplus.
Next came Social Security. Here a bit of explanation is needed. The reason Social Security is in trouble is that the system has a large "hole" — basically a hidden debt — because previous generations of retirees were paid benefits out of the contributions of younger workers. That hole also means that you can't justify privatizing Social Security — which Mr. Bush advocates — by comparing the rate of return that an individual could get by investing in government bonds and the implied rate of return on his Social Security contributions. That comparison ignores a multitrillion-dollar debt that somebody has to pay.
Mr. Bush, wasting no time, went straight to that bogus comparison. "But the safest of all safe — of about 4 percent [a reference to government bonds] — is twice what they get in the Social Security trust today."
Is there any way to explain away Mr. Bush's remarks — three major self-serving misstatements in the course of only a couple of minutes? Not that I can see. We're not talking questionable economic analysis here, just facts: what Mr. Bush said to that national television audience simply wasn't true.
What is really striking here is the silence of the media — those "liberal media" conservatives complain about. "Moneyline" would never let a C.E.O. get away with claiming to spend twice as much on research as the sum announced in the company's own press release. But when Mr. Bush declared that he would spend twice as much on new programs as the sum announced by his own campaign, the interviewer said nothing — and nobody else picked up on it.
As I said, I don't want to keep writing about this. But reporters seem to be too busy chasing rats and dogs to look at what the candidates say about their actual policy proposals. So someone has to point out that in an interview intended to showcase his economic program, Mr. Bush did it again: he vastly exaggerated his spending plans, greatly understated the cost of his tax cut and misrepresented the issues on Social Security.
Originally published in The New York Times, 10.01.00