Before I took my seat on the county board of commissioners, my predecessor was famous for saying, “Figures don’t lie, but liars do figure.” In my experience, he and Mark Twain, to whom the quote is attributed, were wrong After a year of the budget cycle, I no longer believed figures didn’t lie. They do and here’s one example of how it was done. If the county faced a $1 million shortfall in the coming year, one way to balance the budget was to inflate our assumptions about incoming revenue to about $1 million. Revenue is always a guesstimate, anyway, so who’s to say we wouldn’t make more money than originally imagined? What I learned while in politics is that budgets, like fudge, are dark and sticky.
A Bloomberg Businessweek editorial recently reminded me of how fudgey these figures can be. (“Trustworthy—Not Alternative—Statistics,” March 6-12, 2017 pg. 16.) Until now, we Americans have had a right to be proud of our reputation for statistical truths. Our dollar is the benchmark for other world currencies. Governments around the globe rely on our reports — everything from world population projections, to climate data and international trade figures, for example.
Nonetheless, this year’s Congressional budget process bears watching. Why? Because our president has high expectations for himself and his leadership of our country. He projects 4% economic growth for the coming year, a figure that leaves experts scratching their heads. But if the president wants a 4% growth rate, the bureaucracy that serves him may project it. It is, after all, only a projection. Already the administration has instructed economists “to forecast U.S. growth rates a full percentage point higher than consensus estimates.” Doing so allows Trump to mask the negative effects of his tax cuts and spending plans. He can make America seem great on the surface while internally, it will be rotting away with financial instability.
What’s critical in this deception is that businesses rely on government data to spot trends and make financial decisions, like hiring, building new plants or expanding their product lines. State and local governments, as well as public and private agencies, also make life and death decisions based on these figures. Alternative truth with respect to the American economy could plunge this country into the financial equivalent of a nuclear winter. Resisters of Trump’s policies may not be as passionate about the budget as they are about social issues, but if the national debt continues to grow and its size is hidden, the country will face a Depression worse than the last. Social issues like funding Planned Parenthood or the Arts will be irrelevant. A good citizen and a good patriot would be wise to always, always, follow the money.
(Originally published 5/14/2017)