The Financial Seminary
The truth squad is working overtime these days to identify the facts, if any, in the whoppers coming from political candidates, their advertisements and their conventions.
Listening to the barrage of misinformation and distortion about the state of the economy -- to mention one of today's big issues -- I don't know whether to laugh or cry.
Instead, I decided to root out the facts for myself. That's possible, if you read "Red Ink: Inside the High-Stakes Politics of the Federal Budget," the new book by David Wessel.
He is the economics editor for the Wall Street Journal, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and a frequent guest expert on television. His mastery of the federal budget and his straight talk about economic issues have earned him the respect of people in both political parties.
I first heard about "Red Ink" when Wessel was interviewed recently on National Public Radio by Terry Gross, host of the popular program "Fresh Air."
Her question: "So if we look at the tax cuts, the two unpaid-for wars, the prescription drug benefit without any offsets to pay for it, those were all Republican plans. Can you explain how the Republicans, who are, you know, are now complaining that we're being fiscally irresponsible?"
Wessel didn't flinch. "Well, I think ... you're discovering just a little bit of hypocrisy in Washington."
He went on to describe a political culture in which Democrats joined with Republicans to support the Bush unfunded prescription drug law. "Nobody was standing up in the floor of Congress and saying I'm voting against this because we haven't found a way to pay for it. And there weren't a lot of Democrats who wanted to raise taxes to fight the wars, even those who were in favor of them, let alone the ones who weren't."
The bottom line now, Wessel said, is that Republicans "don't like what happened in the 2000s," when spending went up too much, and they now want to reverse that. But here is my favorite Wessel quote about the Republicans and their push today against what they supported under Bush.
Some Republicans, Wessel said, "have a very convenient amnesia." What a civil description of the unrelenting GOP attacks that blame President Obama for today's economic woes.
Leafing through the 204-page book, I underlined some of the most important points that Wessel made in his effort to clear up public misconceptions about government spending. He notes that the typical respondent in a CNN poll in March 2011 estimated that about 10 percent of the federal budget goes for "aid to foreign countries for international development and humanitarian assistance."
"The reality: about 1 percent," Wessel said. "That's another problem with budgeting: The public makes woefully wrong assumptions about virtually every aspect of it."
Other realities that he cites:
• Firing every federal government employee wouldn't save enough to even cut the deficit in half.
• Today's budget deficit is not an economic problem -- tomorrow's is.
• The U.S. defense budget is greater than the combined budgets of the next 17 largest spenders.
"We have become the world's policeman, and it's very expensive," Wessel said. As a result, he said, a lot of conservatives "are beginning to wonder about how much money we should spend on defense. It's not a simple liberal-conservative split anymore. And I suspect that despite Mitt Romney's promises about increasing the defense budget, even if he's elected, we'll see some severe pressure on how much do we really need to spend on defense."
Then there is the crushing problem with entitlements. Wessel's book says that about two-thirds of federal spending last year went to benefits of some sort for individuals, including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps. To demonstrate the difficulty of controlling those costs, the book quotes White House chief of staff Jack Lew:
"It's the things that people want that are causing the problem. People have this feeling that others are getting the benefit, but when you look at what's driving the deficit, it's Social Security that people very much want. It's Medicare that people very much want. It's Medicaid, which is the long-term care program that means that people don't have their 80-year-old mothers and fathers living in the guest room when they need round-the-clock care."
Wessel's book gets high marks from Democrats as well as Republicans. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former adviser to John McCain, says the book "has deciphered the behavior of Washington for Americans beyond the Beltway."
Erskine Bowles, co-chairman of Obama's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility, is even more enthusiastic:
"Stop. Buy this book, or at least read the first chapter. David Wessel explains the approaching debt crisis in clear, concise, nonpartisan plain English. It will not only scare your pants off, it will motivate you to call your congressman and scream, 'For God's sake, enough partisanship, save America, cut spending, raise revenue, whatever! But do it and do it now.'"
Molly McCartney, a former Washington Post reporter, lives in Holmes Beach.