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So there is this guy contending for the presidency–how did this happen, by the way?–named Newt Gingrich, who is a terrible clown, particularly on issues that matter to those of us who take limited government seriously. Two weeks ago Newt Gingrich called the Congressional Budget Office a "reactionary socialist institution," which incidentally is approximately as coherent as accusing Michael C. Moynihan someone of being a "Yankee-loving Red Sox fan." Worse than Gingrich's ritual abuse of adverbs was the authoritarian thinking behind it: Institution X produces data I disagree with, so down with Institution X! Lest you think that I am claiming special privilege for some obscure bureaucracy, note that Gingrich has roughly the same approach toward an entire branch of government.
This bleg post is actually not about Newt Gingrich. The point is that there are forces in American politics that seek to demagogue truth on the road to vanquishing enemies, and there are others that seek to spread enlightenment even (especially?) to those who disagree. As Reason's Peter Suderman wrote at the time of Gingrich's latest brain-fart,
[T]he primary problem isn't the CBO. It's the elected officials who pass and write legislation. Indeed, the CBO was created in part to restrain politically motivated budgeting B.S.
As former Congressional Budget Office director Douglas Holtz-Eakin told me earlier this year, the primary job of the CBO is to score, not forecast, using a consistent set of rules so that legislators and other analysts can compare the relative cost of any particular bill to other legislation. The agency doesn't second-guess legislative proposals, or try to anticipate changes made by future Congresses. It scores each law as if it will be implemented exactly as it is on paper. "By having that set of rules for scoring, you can compare games across time, across teams, and across all sorts of situations, because you have a common thread of scores," Holtz-Eakin said. "So the most important thing about scoring is to apply the same rules to every bill." With the health care overhaul, Democrats in Congress knew this, and took advantage of the agency's consistent scoring rules in order to produce a favorable legislative score.
Emphasis mine, to keep you mothers awake.
The CBO is a perhaps structurally incoherent apparition–a governmental entity that seeks to apply objective measures to government proposals. Yet it plays a crucial role in American politics. Do you want to know how the agency works? There is no better magazine feature on the subject in the English language than the one penned two years ago by Peter Suderman. He was there, day by day, as President Barack Obama and his Democratic majority gamed the CBO within an inch of its life to ram through health insurance reform. And while a nation of lousy or just lazy journalists spread workaday disinformation, Suderman has been there to remind them that there is no such thing as a CBO "report" measuring how the stimulus has created jobs. It's a point that requires constant reminding, given the state of our national media. Neither ideologues nor those claiming to be the opposite have time for this kind of careful work.
I was reminded of all this tonight while watching a terrific speech by the economist, Econ Talker, and Cafe Hayekian Russ Roberts. Roberts, speaking to an audience comprised heavily of D.C. libertarians (I know, right?), used the Gingrich "reactionary socialist" quote and the did-you-know-the-CBO-only-makes-predictions-about-the-stimulus insight to great and shocking effect. And yet my parochial/nationalist brain was thinking, "You know, Suderman had all this on the Hit & Run blog, in real time." Perhaps this impression was further abetted by the fact that Peter was supposed to be sitting at my table, but instead was on a deadline preparing a mammoth cover feature on Romneynomics....
Did I mention that Reason.tv interviewed Russ Roberts about his contributions to the heroic Keynes vs. Hayek rap videos? Watch it below:
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