When is a rise not a rise? GOP statistics on Medicare cuts leave something out

November 19, 1995|By Bob Somerby

"President Clinton talked about Medicare cuts [in the GOP program]. There are no Medicare cuts. We increase Medicare from $4,800 per senior citizen to $6,700 per senior citizen [by the year 2002]. That's a $1,900 a year increase. That's an increase, that's not a cut."

---- Newt Gingrich, "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer." WILL THE MEDICARE plan of the Republican Congress lead to "cuts" in the Medicare program? Remarkably, the issue has been debated for the better part of a year -- and we aren't even close to being able to decide.

Unless action is taken, the hospitalization trust fund will become insolvent in 2002, according to the Medicare trustees.

The Democrats talk about massive cuts in the Medicare program caused by spending adjustments in the Republican plan. The Republicans have responded with the numbers Mr. Gingrich cites above, numbers which clearly suggest what the speaker often states: the Republicans aren't cutting Medicare, just adjusting the rate at which it will grow.

This comparison has been repeated by the speaker and by his allies over and over for the course of a year's time. It has been echoed by Rush Limbaugh for his vast audience, whose members now invariably cite the figure as proof that the GOP is not cutting the program.

The figures have been reprinted without comment, over and over, by national writers in major publications. The speaker has cited these figures in major publications. The speaker has cited these figures in numerous interviews -- including "Meet the Press" and "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" -- without ever being challenged on them, so far as I know.

But the comparison that the speaker makes is a completely misleading statistical construction, in which dollar figures not adjusted for the effects of inflation are compared across a seven-year span. But figures that haven't been adjusted for inflation tell us nothing at all -- nada, zilch. Will services to recipients stay the same? Drop? Grow? There is absolutely no way to tell from the Gingrich comparison. And as the numbers have almost completely defined the public's comprehension of this question, the nation's debate has been waylaid by a statistical trick -- an absurd and transparent misrepresentation.

To state a painfully obvious point, the fact that year-to-year budget figures must be adjusted for inflation is hardly an area of arcane economic theory. No one in Washington -- Mr. Gingrich included -- would ever construct year-to-year budget planning without taking account of the effects of inflation.

No family would plan its 1995 food budget based simply on the dollars it spent seven years ago.

Yet somehow this year, as the Medicare proposals have moved to center stage, the speaker has developed statistical amnesia -- has somehow forgotten that reciting the number of dollars to be spent seven years hence in the program tells us nothing at all about the services these dollars will buy.

Will $6,700 in 2002 buy the same medical services that $4,800 buys today? There is absolutely no way to tell. One Democratic estimate indicates that it will take more than $8,000 in 2002 to provide the same level of service received by the average Medicare recipient today. If that's correct, the GOP plan's $6,700 will fall far short of maintaining the current level of service -- a fact the average citizen would surely want to know.

The debate that should be taking place concerns which party has the better plan and which party has exercised better judgment as to how much future spending in the program should be slowed.

It will be impossible to hold meaningful debate on this topic as long as facile misrepresentations like Mr. Gingrich's clog up the discussion. It is an astounding indictment of our political discourse that this silly comparison has survived so long -- that our discussion of this most important question has been mucked up by this statistical lie.

I think the Republicans deserve a good deal of credit for forcing debate on the Medicare question. But they deserve to be censured -- Mr. Gingrich first among them -- for misleading the public with this facile comparison, so baldly designed to mislead.

L Bob Somerby is a Baltimore writer and professional comedian.

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