Pick a number. Any number. It works for Washington. Why shouldn’t it work for you?
In the unreal bubble in which Washington operates, numbers and words over time begin to lose any meaning. Millions become billions and then trillions and no one bats an eye; statistics get batted around like beach balls, turned and twisted to make whatever argument one wants them to make. A cut in spending is actually just a reduction in a spending increase. A “trust” fund can never be trusted. And nothing gets locked in the “lock box.”
There are lies, damn lies, and statistics, according to the shopworn, but true, adage. And Washingtonians are masters of using all three to advance their agendas. One can’t, after all, get a “landmark” piece of legislation passed without creating a sense of crisis. And you can’t create a crisis without some eye-popping statistics to back it up.
During the Reagan administration, some readers may recall, there were 14 million homeless people purportedly walking the streets. Or it might have been 6 million people. Who can remember now? And what does it matter? Those numbers, although widely circulated and regularly used in news reports and broadcasts, were bogus — cooked up by self-styled homeless advocate Mitch Snyder and swallowed whole by just about everybody. Yet the only reliable, credible study of homelessness done at the time counted roughly 600,000 — which is still too many, but a far cry from the hyperinflated figures Snyder used to advance his agenda.
That great big hissing sound you’re hearing now is the hot air escaping from another statistical gas bag — the number of Americans without health insurance. That figure has shown itself to be consistently large but somewhat elastic, usually hovering somewhere near the 40 million mark, but tending to creep upward whenever any piece of legislation gets proposed as a panacea for the health insurance “crisis.”
The number has been used to promote the idea of nationalized health care. And it, or something like it, was used to win passage of Kiddi-care, a relatively new federal program meant to address the “crisis” of uninsured children.
Yet the number of Americans without health insurance coverage year round is probably 10 million to 20 million fewer than the 40 million generally cited, according to a Congressional Budget Office study released last week. That means the actual number of uninsured may be only half of what is commonly cited. As with the homeless figure, it’s still a lot of people, assuming even this number is accurate. But a statistical error of up to 100 percent is significant, even in Washington.
The problem is that this bogus statistic isn’t just being spread around by activists or pandering politicians, but is even being used in government reports, adding legitimacy to something that lacks it. The Census Bureau, for instance, used the 40 million figure in its “Current Population Survey,” suggesting that is the number of the long-term uninsured. Yet as many as half that number may have been without insurance on a temporary basis, CBO pointed out, often because they were temporarily between jobs. And that number also includes the voluntarily uninsured, who simply choose, for whatever reason, to go without it.
Yet it’s frequently through the contrived distortion of such statistics that government policy gets made.
CBO’s careful parsing of the numbers “reveals some good news,” Rep. Bill Thomas, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said last week. “Fewer individuals are long-term uninsured than previously thought.” Thomas said he hoped a more accurate snapshot of the true situation will help lawmakers come up with solutions tailored to the actual facts rather than over-hyped statistics.
Don’t count on it, Chairman Thomas. Just as sex sells in the marketing of consumer products, hyperinflated statistics sell in the marketing of political ones.