The Wonk is Wrong, Again

John Ransom
Posted: Mar 19, 2012 12:01 AM

In a piece last week titled Obama’s Phony Numbers Adding Up, I quoted a new Congressional Budget Office report that says that the amount originally estimated for the ten-year cost of Obamacare had soared from $900 billion to $1.76 trillion.

In the wake of the report, I mentioned that noted Washington Post “Wonk” blogger Ezra Klein had been wrong the year before in calling out Rep. Eric Cantor’s claim that the math Democrats used to sell Obamacare as a deficit fighting issue was at best incomplete.

I wrote:

Liberal “wonk” Ezra Klein, of the math-impaired Washington Post, still scolded Republican Rep. Eric Cantor last year for pointing out this obvious fact: Democrats cooked the books to make Obamacare appear as a deficit reduction measure.

“But as a matter of arithmetic,” wrote Klein in January of 2011, “using the math that Congress always uses, the bill saves money. It cuts enough spending and raises enough taxes to more than pay for itself, both in the first 10 years and in the second 10 years.”

Turns out the “wonk” was w-w-w-wrong. 

Well it turns out that the Wonk says I’m w-w-w-wrong. Or he’s more truer or righter than before.

I’ll let him misstate that part:

Actually, no, I wasn’t[wrong]. That statement, in fact, is even truer today than it was then.

He then calls me out for quoting the CBO that “those provisions will increase deficits by $1,083 billion,” saying that I either choose not to admit or didn’t understand that the analysis wasn’t a complete rundown of all the budgetary impacts.

Let me make this as clear as possible, Ezra Klein’s argument encapsulates everything that is wrong with Washington. Massive budget deficit? Blame the Wonk. Runaway spending? He can own that too. Because most of the math Klein is using is the same BS the BLS uses to subtract 4 million workers from the workforce and claim that unemployment is going down.  

Only in Washington can wonks take cost estimates that go up, ignore the revenue side of the equation and then smugly tell the rest of us that we either didn’t read the entire analysis or that we were too stupid to understand it.  

Let’s run down the ways that Klein is not only w-w-w-rong, but disingenuous. Let’s do a little audit to see how Klein is cooking the books.  

The original disagreement between conservatives and the Obamaniacs like Klein in regards to the healthcare numbers was the liberals’ assertion that “Hurray! We got it to cost under a trillion dollars! And it decreases the deficit.”

They got to this amazing intersection- in an election year, if you can believe it- by counting in the ten-year projection the years when Obamacare spent nothing. The GOP of course pointed this out- notably Eric Cantor last year, who accused liberals like Klein of comparing apples to oranges. The Klein response I quoted above was a part of that exchange.

Face it: The cost of Obamacare was sold to America as $938 billion for ten years. Sure it was a rhetorical device only, with experts understanding that as Obamacare was fully-implemented the amount would go up. But liberals can’t have it both ways. They can’t sell the $938 billion figure on the one hand and not expect to get spanked when the total costs change, as conservatives pointed out it would.       

Now let’s look at the analysis that Klein called me out on.

The problem with Klein’s assertion is that the CBO report isn’t a complete analysis of all the budgetary impacts just as Klein points out. He can’t say what the revenue side will look like, even if he’s OK with just taking a guess. 

He chooses to believe that the government is great at forecasting, but of course the government is terrible at forecasting: 1) the costs of government programs; and 2) the revenue generated by taxes, especially those on income. And as Klein says the CBO report “doesn’t include the Medicare cuts, or many of the tax increases, that pay for the legislation. It’s like reading only the ‘outlays’ side of the budget and ignoring the ‘revenues’ part.”

Well let’s peek at some of the snarls that may undermine both sides of that equation.

The newest CBO report reduces overall participation in Obamacare from 33 million to 30 million since last year’s estimate. As Klein notes in the very last sentence of his article, “It doesn’t give a reason for the revision.”  I could make any government program appear to cost less if I lopped off ten percent of the participants without any reason. But of course even this new analysis from the CBO doesn’t include lowered costs; in fact, just the opposite. Costs go down only 4 percent since last year’s estimate, despite lower enrollment and that doesn’t factor in what could be lower revenues from taxes.     

When we compare the cost that was originally touted per year versus vs. the revised forecast, the fact is that Obamacare is costing more than Democrats advertised- and covering fewer people.   

Klein pins his cost reduction hopes on what he says appears to be a $50 billion reduction in the net costs from estimates last year. Again, what he buries in the last paragraph is key to the sleight of hand: “[Th]e bill is now expected to cover 30 million Americans, rather than 33 million Americans. It doesn’t give a reason for the revision.” 

And that’s what should be most alarming to anyone who thinks that Obamacare is going to be a deficit fighting measure.

As the CBO report notes there has been a downward revision in the macroeconomic engine that is driving both the spending side and the revenue side projections of Obamacare. Likely it means that revenues will come in under projections and, more importantly, participation in the program will be up, rather than down, meaning that it will cost more with lower revenues.

Last year’s estimates were based on a much rosier economic picture.

A quarter of the funding for Obamacare was expected to come from taxpayers earning more than $200,000-$250,000 per year. As Klein knows, the number of taxpayers who fall into that category has been declining, not rising. In addition, taxpayers who will pay higher rates in the category contemplated under Obamacare have a lot of flexibility as to how they show income. And taxes on so-called Cadillac benefits, imports on medical devices and drugs are also sensitive to economic conditions.

I'm not kidding myself. Klein and the rest of the wonks over at the Post will show nothing but distain for any argument that goes against global warming, Obamacare and progressive thinking. Anything they can do to move the progressive agenda forward, they will do, including making the false argument that they can project ten years' revenues for Obamacare into just barely a deficit reduction.

If that we're true, we'd lop off another 3 million, or 6 million or even 10 million from Obamacare enollments and really fight the deficit. In fact, if we just reduce enrollments by 33 million, we'd really be talking about deficit reduction.

As Mark Twain once said about one of his plays: "I never saw a play improve as this one did. The more he cut out of it, the better it got, right along. He cut out, and cut out, and cut out and I do believe this would be one of the best plays in the world today if his strength had held out, and he could have gone on and cut out the rest of it."

So it goes with Obamacare. Let's just hope our strength holds out so that we can cut the rest of it.          

So no, Klein is not truer than he was before. The Wonk is w-w-w-wronger, in fact, than ever.           

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