Fun_People Archive
27 Sep
Wag the Dog

Content-Type: text/plain
Mime-Version: 1.0 (NeXT Mail 3.3 v118.2)
From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Wed, 27 Sep 100 11:01:05 -0700
To: Fun_People
Precedence: bulk
Subject: Wag the Dog

X-Lib-of-Cong-ISSN: 1098-7649  -=[ Fun_People ]=-
From: NY Times 9/24/00

Wag the Dog


George W. Bush is still using the four-dollar routine in his public
appearances - the one where he pulls out four dollar bills to represent
the projected budget surplus, then says that he plans to use only one of
those bills, one-quarter of the surplus, for tax cuts. Anyone who has looked
at his campaign's own numbers (or who read this column a week and a half
ago) knows that this isn't right - that the tax cut would actually use up
more than a third of the surplus. But most commentators seem to think that
this is a minor detail - a quarter, a third, what's the difference? (About
$450 billion, but who's counting?)

Meanwhile, Al Gore got a pummeling from some commentators - and, of course,
Mr. Bush's campaign - over the dog story, in which he told an anecdote
about an expensive human drug that costs only one-third as much if
prescribed by a vet. It turns out that he was looking at wholesale prices;
when you look at retail prices the number is more than one-third, though
less than one-half. My God! Does this man have the integrity to be

Although both cases involve misstated fractions, they are very different
in other ways. Mr. Gore's numbers were off, but the thrust of his story -
that drug companies engage in price discrimination, charging what the
traffic will bear - is true. On the other hand, the intended moral of Mr.
Bush's story - that the budget will easily accommodate his tax cut, that
it leaves plenty of money with which to secure the future of retirees,
rebuild the military, and all that - isn't at all true.

Just to revisit the arithmetic one more time: Let one dollar bill represent
$100 billion of projected surplus. If we put Social Security and Medicare
in "lock boxes," the remaining surplus amounts to $18 - of which $16 will
be used up by Mr. Bush's tax cut. And Mr.  Bush has promised new spending
that is more than twice, though less than three times - hey, I don't want
to be inaccurate! - as much as the money he actually has left.

So Mr. Gore got the details wrong but represented the basic situation
correctly; Mr. Bush also got the details wrong but fundamentally
misrepresented the situation. And that's not the only difference. Mr.  Gore
told his story once, and didn't repeat it after the details were questioned.
Mr. Bush continues to tell his story even though it is demonstrably
inconsistent with the numbers his own campaign has put out.

It's true that Mr. Gore has an occasional habit - odd in someone who is so
obsessed with detail - of making the story he is telling a bit better than
it deserves to be. And public figures are, and should be, held to a higher
standard on such matters than ordinary raconteurs.  But Mr. Gore's
occasional overstatements, while embarrassing, don't come close to those
of many other politicians. Remember Ronald Reagan's tale of the welfare
queen driving her welfare Cadillac - a fantasy that was not only untrue
but mean- spirited too.

So why did Mr. Bush's campaign believe that the dog story offered an
opportunity to challenge Mr. Gore's integrity - and that Mr. Bush's own
problems with fractions would not raise questions about his own

The answer, I suspect, is that political strategists believe that voters
don't pay attention to big numbers, numbers that are outside their ordinary
experience. And maybe they're right. If a candidate were to declare that
gasoline costs $1 a gallon when everyone knows that it costs at least $1.60,
he would be shouted off the stage. But when Mr. Bush declares (as he often
does on the stump) that his tax cut will cost $1 trillion, when his own
budget numbers indicate that the right number is roughly $1.6 trillion,
everyone shrugs.

This tendency to focus on the small, supposedly revealing story rather than
the big picture may be ingrained in human nature. But voters - and the
press - ought to fight this tendency if it means that minor slips are
punished and major fibs are ignored. If this campaign is about "real
policies for real people," then we should demand that the candidates get
the really important numbers right.

(c) 2000 NYT

prev [=] prev © 2000 Peter Langston []