Merry Christmas, Mr. Greenwald!


While some of us were eating our figgy pudding and drinking mulled wine, Salon's Glenn Greenwald was acting like a patriot would by arguing that my Dec. 22 Obama-is-lying-about-health-care post was "flagrantly dishonest," since I included in my list of reasons a complaint that the president used "the verb 'reports' to describe what the Congressional Budget Office does," as opposed to, say, "projects." The "report" formulation, Greenwald found, is something Reason herself has used on at least six separate occasions regarding the CBO, each listed and quoted in the post (please go read it here).

And you know what? Greenwald's right! Well, at least about the two of his six examples in which "report" was indeed used as a verb. (When the CBO scores a bill, it is projecting; those projections are collected in documents that I for one have zero problem describing with the catch-all noun "report.")

Of the two remaining citations, one was in reference to a similar exercise as the scoring of a bill (projecting an imagined emissions cut), and the other, while also a projection, was a pretty different beast: the regular long-term budget outlook report for the United States. In the latter citation, Reason's Peter Suderman did not, as President Obama did last week, affix the verb "reports" to a discrete and highly disputed number, but rather to say very generally, "the CBO reports [that Medicare's] fiscal future looks dire." Though I think there's an obvious difference in the usage, I will defer to the Baby Jesus and cop fully to the two examples. Confirmation bias is a bitch, and we in opinion journalism should work harder than our "straight" brethren in recognizing it in our own work. Thank you, Mr. Greenwald.

This bit of linguistic hair-splitting, entertaining as it apparently was, amounted to one-fifth of my complaint against Obama in the post under dispute. Of the other four points–that Democrats have been gaming the CBO on the health care bill, that the agency is duty-bound to count as real a piece of legislation's unspecified future spending cuts that no one believes will take place, that the very CBO report Obama was touting had been significantly changed a few days prior, and most of all that the president was pretending that health care reform is not a "big government spending bill"–Greenwald is silent. We can infer that the Salon blogger finds it distasteful that I used the word "lied"–scratch that, that Reason's "embittered, clichè-ridden, deeply hypocritical Editor-in-Chief is reduced to screaming 'LIAR!' at Obama for saying things about the CBO which his own magazine has repeatedly said when it suits them"–yet we do not know which if any of Obama's statements that I disputed Greenwald believes to be true. Does he really, for example, believe that arguments that "this is somehow a big spending government bill" do "not hold water"? I guess we'll have to tune in to Update VI.

Alas, having located his two bits of scalp, Greenwald is unable to just declare victory and go home. He writes that "back when Reason loved the CBO because it was reporting that Obama's health care proposal and other policies would increase the deficit," the mag held "up the CBO as an authoritative oracle not to be questioned." That "be questioned," in an example typical of Greenwald's evidentiary standard, is hyperlinked to a post that says or infers nothing about the unquestionability of the CBO.

Here's what Greenwald cannot possibly understand because of both ignorance and confirmation bias of his own, bias that has created a fascinating but sadly fabricated timeline in which Reason turned on a dime from writing love-letters to the CBO (evidenced, apparently, by every simple citation of the agency's work), to becoming its sworn enemy once the health care scores started looking better for Obama in September: Peter Suderman's terrific feature article describing the history, present, and scoring practices of the CBO was conceived, assigned, written, edited, and about 95 percent executed back when the CBO was still looking like the health care bill's biggest obstacle (alert readers may have noticed such clues as the article's subtitle, and how the September news is just kinda tacked on at the end). Suderman's idea, and ours, was to help anyone who cared about this debate understand how the agency does it work, what other economic forecasters think of it (contra Greenwald's inaccurately reductive description of the piece as "maligning the CBO as unreliable and speculative," Suderman writes "their guesswork is as good as it comes. On the left and the right, most economists will testify to the CBO's general excellence"), and how it rose to such a unique level of prominence in this particular legislative process. Like what Suderman has done with health-care polling, it was an attempt to help readers of all stripes cut through the partisan fog in order to better understand an authority source used in a highly charged debate. In other words, it is almost exactly the opposite of what Greenwald claims it is.

By all means, don't take my word for it just because there's a hyperlink under an assured-sounding description–read it yourself. And Greenwald's description, too. Then watch Greenwald talk drug decriminalization in Portugal on Reason.TV: