CBO Prestidigitation! It’s Official Magic


People had been waiting breathlessly for a sober, nonpartisan assessment from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) on the cost of ObamaCare. If it came in under the magic threshold of trillion, there would be a green light for enacting it.

Not too surprisingly, the CBO gave Obama just what he wanted. What is surprising is that the headline is not from a conservative political publication but from the front page of a mainstream, left-of-center urban daily newspaper, The Arizona Daily Star.

The President ordered up a $950 billion price tag, and a $100 billion, ten-year reduction in the federal deficit. Presto! The CBO pulled the right number of digits out of the hat, a mere $940 billion price tag and a $138 billion deficit decrease a giant drop in the gargantuan federal red-ink bucket.

It wasn’t by accident, the wire report acknowledged, without going so far as to call it sleight of hand and showmanship.

The Democrats admittedly just adjusted the numbers as needed. Is the excise tax on union members Cadillac health plans too high? Lower that, and tax seniors retirement-plan interest and dividends.

It’s not like a shopping spree at Macy’s with Daddy’s credit card. It is rather like a trip to the local fruit stand with a fixed amount of money in hand, the story explained. Not that anybody could carry that much cash, not even in diamonds. Congress just adjusted the mix of grapes, oranges, and apples to make a fruit salad without busting the budget.

A small difference between Congress and the fruit stand is omitted. The vendors at the farmer’s market expect payment in cash: no Monopoly money, counterfeit, rubber checks, or credit cards belonging to somebody’s as-yet-unborn grandchild. And pickpocketing is not allowed either.

Moreover, the vendors stand behind their product, which the customer can inspect and taste on the spot.

The handkerchief over Obama’s fruit salad will be whisked off only later, after the 2014 election. Even if it turns out to be sour grapes, blighted oranges, and rotten apples, the taxes have already been collected, and the liabilities on future generations incurred.

One other detail: ObamaCare will cut off the irrigation water to the private orchard, even it doesn’t actually chop it down. That will clear the way for the all-public collective-farm option for which many Democrats yearn. That’s one reason they don’t care too much about the legislative details. Why fertilize or trim a tree that is going to be uprooted? And if there is no more fruit, guess who will be blamed: the bankrupt farmer.

CBO legerdemain is like a magic show. It is smoke and mirrors, illusion, and deception. But there is a difference. Magicians do not create rabbits out of thin air, but they do produce them.

If the CBO predictions are shown to be pure digital fantasy, it is not the actuaries who will suffer. As with the wild underestimates for the cost of Medicare, imaginary numbers have real physical consequences.

The number crunchers got paid; Americans are still paying.

– Jane M. Orient, M.D., is the Executive Director of Association of American Physicians and Surgeons.