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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press George Will Is Upset that the Public Prefers to Take Arithmetic Over His Assertions

George Will Is Upset that the Public Prefers to Take Arithmetic Over His Assertions

Thursday, 03 January 2013 08:11

If George Will's New Year's resolution was to get as many wrong assertions in his columns as possible, he is off to a good start. Today's piece presented readers with an avalanche of inaccuracies before pounding readers with the main point: George Will says we can't afford Social Security and Medicare. 

First let's take some choice items from the avalanche. Will tells us that America:

"has an energy surplus, the government-produced overhang of housing inventory is shrinking and the average age of Americans’ cars is an astonishing 10.8 years."

On the first point, we are exporting some oil based products and natural gas, but that does not offset the 10 million plus barrels of oil a day that we import. The government didn't produce the excess housing. Those were private companies that built the homes. The worst of the bubble financing came from folks like Ameriquest and Countrywide who issued junk mortgages because they were profitable. They then sold them to investment banks like Goldman Sachs and Citigroup who securitized them because it was profitable. Government regulators, first and foremost Alan Greenspan, deserve blame for not cracking down on the bubble, but it is more than a bit loose with reality to say the government "produced" the overhang.

As far as the average age of American cars, it is not clear whether we are supposed to think this is good or bad. (I hope my car will last at least 10.8 years.) 

But let's get to the fun stuff. Will tells us:

"Once, Japan bestrode the world, jauntily buying Rockefeller Center and Pebble Beach. Now Japanese buy more adult diapers than those for infants."

Yes, Japan has the longest life expectancy of any country in the world. If they adopted a health care system like the one in the United States perhaps the Japanese would die younger so that they would then buy relatively more diapers for infants. The Japanese may not opt to follow Will's recommendation here.

Will is also upset that the U.S. will be contributing less to global warming in the future, complaining that:

"America has its lowest birth rate since at least 1920."

Then we get the assertion:

"Deficit spending once was largely for investments — building infrastructure, winning wars — which benefited future generations, so government borrowing appropriately shared the burden with those generations. Now, however, continuous borrowing burdens future generations in order to finance current consumption."

Actually deficit spending right now is primarily to support the economy. As fans of arithmetic everywhere know, the reason that we have large deficits today is because the economy collapsed following the bursting of the housing bubble. If we were not running large deficits we would see less output and more unemployment.

Rather than "borrowing from the future" as Will puts it, quoting from a Hudson Institute scholar, we are keeping our children's parents employed with government deficits. Apparently the Hudson Institute doesn't realize that we will also pass on the government bonds issued today as assets to future generations. As a practical matter, the burden of net interest on the debt is near a post-war low.

Will then complains:

"First, there will be no significant spending restraint. Democrats — you know: the people respectful of evidence and science — even rejected a more accurate measurement of the cost of living that would slightly slow increases in myriad government benefits."

In fact, no one knows that Will's preferred consumer price index is a more accurate measure of the cost of living for the Social Security population. Advocates of adopting this measure have run from the idea of constructing a cost of living index specifically for the elderly -- showing a contempt for evidence and science. An experimental index shows the elderly have a higher cost of living than the population as a whole primarily due to the fact that they spend more of their income on health care.

The next one is in the "huh?" category:

"He [Obama] has nothing pertinent to say about the steadily worsening fiscal imbalance that will make sluggish growth — less than 3 percent — normal."

Actually the Congressional Budget Office says that 2.4 percent growth is normal (once we return to potential GDP) for reasons that have nothing to do with deficits. Is Will smoking something here?

Then we get Will's pure tirade beginning with:

"Both parties flinch from cliff-related tax increases and spending decreases. But neither the increases nor decreases would have tamed the current $1 trillion-plus budget deficit nor made a discernible dent in the 87-times-larger unfunded liabilities of the entitlement state."

Getting away from Will's rant-land and back to the world of arithmetic, we know that Social Security is mostly funded for the indefinite future. The real story here is the one of exploding health care costs. If U.S. health care costs were comparable to those of any other wealthy country we would be looking at long-term budget surpluses, not deficits. And if our political system is too corrupt to reform our health care system then we could always go the route of trade, allowing Medicare beneficiaries to buy into the more efficient health care systems in other countries.

But hey, this is getting into arithmetic, Will is ranting about our decadence because we won't take away Social Security checks and health care from our elderly. Let's not confuse issues.





Comments (20)Add Comment
Two Wrongs Make A Right
written by Last Mover, January 03, 2013 8:18
George Will is a fan of arithmetic.

Based on the principle that multiplying two negative numbers yields a positive number, two wrongs always make a right.

Will is always careful to make sure the total number of false claims always add up to an even number, claiming that in context, the first half of wrongs is right and the second half of wrongs is right as well.
Base thoughts
written by David, January 03, 2013 9:07
Mr. Will is a binary thinker. In base two (binary) arithmetic, 1+1=10 and 10+10=100. But Mr. Will doesn't realize he is binary, he thinks he's decimal (base ten) (he must have been hit on the head too many times playing his beloved baseball, or tying his bow tie too tight?). No wonder he is so confused!
written by Ryan, January 03, 2013 10:57
Unfortunately, I cannot empirically refute his periodic crusades against jeans anywhere as well as you do his economic tirades. Take a crack at it sometime, will you?
Will is a Republican
written by Ron Alley, January 03, 2013 11:05
News Flash #1 - George Will not only is a Republican -- he's a conservative.

News Flash #2 - For Republicans and conservatives, Arithmetic don't count and math don't matter.

News Flash #3 - Facts aren't important, pure logic prevails.
written by JSeydl, January 03, 2013 11:26
Nice. I read Will's garbage this morning syndicated in my local newspaper and knew Dean wouldn't let it stand.
Beating Alice Rivlin
written by Mike, January 03, 2013 1:00
On a related note, it's worth mentioning that Dean appeared in a "Room For Debate" panel discussion on Social Security in today's NYT. You can find it in the opinion section of the online edition. I'm saving my one link in this comment for the following.

Another panelist in the discussion was Alice Rivlin, who made the claim that Social Security adds to the debt. I'm surprised that Dean didn't jump on that here, so allow me:

on old cars & soylent-green-esque government models
written by watermelonpunch, January 03, 2013 2:24
As far as the average age of American cars, it is not clear whether we are supposed to think this is good or bad.

I was thinking the same thing...
My car is 18 years old.
This may reflect my economic situation. But it also says something positive about Toyotas from 1995, I think. I also get pretty decent gas mileage, considering. I'm in better shape than folks with 10yr old American made SUVs.

As for the comment about Japan & adult diapers... I'm imagining that this is somehow a round-about way of criticizing Japan's so called stagnation caused by socialist style government planning & spending (ahem ^^).

But what I'm hearing is that he's saying that any country with "a lot of old people soaking up government entitlements", should, to get their economy out of stagnation, institute assisted suicide centers for the aged. ??

It's like when the people in support of cutting entitlements point out that social security is not a pension fund, it's a government welfare... Good guys. Keep saying that and maybe finally some old people will stop voting against their own best interests when they realize that the income they depend on is the "entitlements" those people want to cut. Because you know that most seniors when they hear "entitlement cuts" they don't think about the social security & medicare they depend upon - they've been trained to think of "entitlements" as the "free money" given to "lazy unemployed unmarried black mothers of multiply fathered children", because that's the illusion in the right hand they've been trained to look at by the magicians that want to cut their incomes with the left hand.

So I say let them keep harping on making it sound like they think seniors are a useless burden to society to be ridiculed for their incontinence.
Maybe people will finally see people who say these things for what they really are...
Big Beneficiaries: WS Firms
written by James, January 03, 2013 5:39

According to Citizens for Tax Justice, the financial services industry paid an average effective tax rate of 15.5 percent from 2008 to 2010, far lower than that of most other industries.


written by urban legend, January 03, 2013 7:45
Mike -- Not only are you right about that -- the total debt remains exactly the same because an obligation is extinguished when the new one is created -- but it seems people like Rivlin are inherently disrespecting the law by treating a legal fiction -- the idea of a "unified budget" -- as something real that allows them to blow past the correct observation that Social Security is self-funded with a current massive surplus, when, in fact, as a matter of law, there is no such thing as a "unified budget."
diaper facts
written by diaper-facts, January 03, 2013 10:37
Japan sells more adult diapers because in Japan parents use washable baby diapers to a much higher degree than Americans. They don't use washable adult diapers.
written by watermelonpunch, January 04, 2013 1:28
RE: washable diapers - I couldn't find any posted information about that in Japan, but it's easy to speculate that the U.S. uses disposable baby diapers over washable diapers more than any other nation! So it sure sounds like a plausible explanation for that data.

RE: Social Security, "self-funded with a current massive surplus"

If this is the case, why do people like Chris Edwards get to go on the Diane Rehm show http://thedianerehmshow.org/sh...ional-debt
and hysterically talk about social security being bankrupted??
written by John Puma, January 04, 2013 2:15
The GOP (Greedy Obnoxious Predators) would, if it had the presidency, wet its collective adult diapers if it could point to 3% economic growth.

With "investors" close to having TO PAY to own government debt, said government would truly be foolish NOT to lend more.

The CPI is bogus right now, without the added idiocy of "chaining," as it seems to omit increases in costs of food and fuel.

written by JDM, January 04, 2013 2:48
Kramer was right.

and Han shot first.
My car is 24 years old
written by r. nemo, January 04, 2013 8:23
George will is a basic fool. My Toyota Camry is 24-5 years old and running just fine. I expect it to go 300,000 miles. It is in the prime of its life at 160,000. Nothing major has failed. paint is fine. Few minor repairs since 1988. If SS was to run out of funds--which it wont--the general fund will have to cover the cost. Basic fact. Republicans are just liars about everything. They are a sad lot of fools. Some one tell them the Reagan con job era is over!

george who?
written by r. nemo, January 04, 2013 8:27
George Will imagines himself to be an intellectual. A conservative intellectual is an oxymoron. There are none. They just bloviate and decieve the ignorant masses. No new story here.
Ignorant or shill
written by Robert Hurst, January 04, 2013 10:52
He can't seriously believe the U.S. has an "energy surplus?"
Sure we do
written by John Q, January 04, 2013 11:46
Ignorant or shill
written by Robert Hurst, January 04, 2013 11:52
He can't seriously believe the U.S. has an "energy surplus?"

If you count the total untapped solar and wind energy we have access to here in the US - we do indeed have a huge energy surplus. We're just not making use of it.
Will trots out the old zombie lie again
written by Matt, January 05, 2013 12:18
"government-produced overhang of housing inventory is shrinking"

This is actually just a more-polite rehashing of the standard RW zombie lie about the Community Reinvestment Act.
Why Canadian Death Panels What Canadians to Live Longer
written by ChuckL, January 05, 2013 11:07
I've figured out why the life expectancy is longer in Canada than the US: the Canadian Death Panels require that Canadians live longer so that they can wait longer to receive their healthcare services!
Love it...
written by Mike Ballard, January 07, 2013 6:24
I love it when a smart liberal cuts a smart conservative lickspittle for the bourgeoisie down to size. Thanks Dean.

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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.