Esquire's Fact-Challenged Attempt at Making Government Look Cool


I typically like Esquire, but John Richardson's current profile of former CBO-chief and current Office of Management and Budget head Peter Orszag shows just how desperately major media outlets are trying to make government look and seem cool in the Obama era. It's a fill-in-the-blanks, Washington-specific variation on Esquire's signature celebrity puff piece: You couldn't quite substitute Orszag for Angelina Jolie—the subject of Ron Rosenbaum's "worst celebrity profile ever written"—but it's the same basic idea. There's almost no new content (the one interesting factoid is that Orszag seems to have supported a much smaller stimulus package), and the primary aim isn't to deliver information or insight, but to put a sheen of glossy cool on the subject. At one point, Richardson takes readers on a tour of OMB's offices and breathlessly recites headlines from the resumes of the agency's top officials—Harvard! Yale! Clinton White House! Oxford! Harvard again!—as if to say, hey, reader, you should be impressed.

Well, I'm not, especially since Richardson gets one of his few significant attempts at substance flat wrong. The piece begins in July, with its hero receiving bad news: Current CBO chief Doug Elmendorf tells Congress that health care reform will not bend the cost curve—in direct opposition to what Orszag has repeatedly said. At the end of the piece, however, all is resolved. October rolls around and the CBO decided that health care reform will "bend the cost-curve," and that it "will save the government at least $81 billion over ten years, maybe more."

Only one problem with that last bit: CBO never said any of it. Esquire's editors apparently can't tell the difference between bending the cost curve, spending less money, and reducing the deficit. These are not the same thing.

CBO did say that reform could reduce the deficit by $81 billion. But cutting the deficit is not the same as spending less. Indeed, it's possible to cut the deficit—which measures how much greater spending is than revenues—and spend a lot more. In fact, that's what reform calls for.

Nor has CBO said that reform will bend the cost curve. The last time CBO took a clear stand on the issue, the office said reform would bend the curve the wrong way. More recently, CBO has ducked the issue, saying it's not able to tell for sure. But Medicare's actuary says that reform is likely to increase medical spending.

In other words, Orszag never actually got the particular piece of good news the piece claims he did. But maybe it doesn't matter now that he's got the fact-challenged puffery of Esquire hacks on his side.