If anyone asks you for an example of the rule that “fact checker’s don’t,” here’s exhibit A. It’s not that hard to see the many claims by President Obama which were obviously off or exaggerated in his recent "Paul Ryan is evil incarnate" speech – Ryan responded in a Facebook post here. But one of the constants in Obama’s speech was a flaw that's always irritated me about the way we discuss government spending.
Obama repeatedly said some version of “Ryan’s budget means you’re taking away X/so and so many people will lose Y.” But much of this is based on a false approach to the budget process in out-years. It’s as false as agencies that claim they’re being cut, when in reality it’s just cuts in the rate of growth, or less money than they expected to have in their coffers. And it’s a reminder why, as Reagan used to say, “the nearest thing to eternal life we will ever see on this earth is a government program.”
For instance, the Medicaid line: Obama can argue that anyone who is opposed to his signature health care law is for “take away health care for about 19 million Americans – 19 million!” by opposing his Medicaid expansion. But this is an absurd trick: none of those people are on Medicaid yet. It’s like accusing your dad of taking away your Red Ryder BB gun when he hasn’t even bought it for you yet. (Sidenote: of course, Medicaid has the worst outcomes of any government health care system and a burgeoning access problem which will only worsen when you add millions to it without anywhere near the additional provider support you need. Is adding people to a system where it’s statistically better to be uninsured than on Medicaid for cancer treatment, etc. really that great of a gift?) The point is that Obama frames it as “taking away” something that hasn’t been given yet. You’re not tossing people into the street, you’re eliminating an expansion which would imprison millions of people in the worst health care ghetto in existence.
The same approach is there throughout the speech. Obama:
“The year after next, nearly 10 million college students would see their financial aid cut by an average of more than $1,000 each. There would be 1,600 fewer medical grants, research grants for things like Alzheimer’s and cancer and AIDS. There would be 4,000 fewer scientific research grants, eliminating support for 48,000 researchers, students, and teachers. Investments in clean energy technologies that are helping us reduce our dependence on foreign oil would be cut by nearly a fifth.”
But none of these expenditures exist yet. They’re projections from the past, out-year mortgage payments on the McMansion we lived in before things fell apart, assumptions based on the idea that we’ll keep spending like there’s no tomorrow.
Ryan’s office shared this response for just one aspect:
“There is simply no proposal or program contained in the House budget that would result in "10 million college students [seeing] their financial aid cut by an average of more than $1,000 each."… With regard to Pell, claims that this budget cuts Pell are false. Our budget ensures that we maintain the current maximum Pell award ($5,550), but it couples this maintenance of effort with a responsible policy that puts Pell on a sustainable path by ending the practice of Pell increases that A) are not paid for and B) simply enable rapid increases in college tuition. Spending on Pell has more than doubled since 2008. In contrast to the President’s budget, which pumps up the maximum Pell award for another two years without providing any funding to sustain the program for the long term, the House-passed budget reforms the program and fully funds it for the entire budget window. Also, there is growing evidence that Pell increases are simply enabling colleges to raise their tuition and fees, which shot up by over 8 percent last year alone. The House-passed budget calls for reforms to ensure that Pell spending goes to students who truly need it, not university administrators.”
Fools, there is no higher ed bubble! But back to Team Ryan:
“With regard to the President's number – we simply can't figure out how he got there. The only way to get even close is to measure our policy against a baseline that assumes that a temporarily lower interest rate for a subset of student borrowers written into a 2007 law fails to expire as it is scheduled to do under current law.”
Is Obama really assuming that a temporary decrease in interest rates was actually intended to go on forever? The number of consequences of that assumption would be an interesting future to plumb.
Obama’s approach essentially comes down to: “I have a good talking point, and I’ll make any assumptions I have to in order to use it.” I sure hope he will roll out this same ludicrous line should the Supreme Court strike down his entire law. “How many people will die at the hand of bloodthirsty Anthony Kennedy?” That’s good, he should use that.