W <http://graphics7.nytimes.com/images/dropcap/w.gif> inston Smith, the
protagonist of George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four," was a rewrite
man. His job was to destroy documents that could undermine the
government's pretense of infallibility, and replace them with altered
Lately, Winston Smith has gone to Washington. I'm sure that lots of
history is being falsified as you read this - there are several
three-letter agencies I don't trust at all - but two cases involving the
federal budget caught my eye.
First is the "Chicago line." Shortly after Sept. 11, George W. Bush told
his budget director that the only valid reasons to break his pledge not
to run budget deficits would be if the country experienced recession,
war or national emergency. "Lucky me," he said. "I hit the trifecta."
When I first reported this remark, angry readers accused me of inventing
it. Mr. Bush, they said, is a decent man who would never imply that the
nation's woes had taken him off the hook, let alone make a joke out of
Soon afterward, the trifecta story became part of Mr. Bush's standard
stump speech. It always gets a roar of appreciative laughter from
So what's the Chicago line? In his speeches, Mr. Bush claims to have
laid out the criteria for running a deficit when visiting Chicago during
the 2000 campaign. But there's no evidence that he said anything of the
sort during the campaign, in Chicago or anywhere else; certainly none of
the reporters who were with him can remember it. (The New Republic,
which has tracked the claim, titled one of its pieces "Stop him before
he lies again.") In fact, during the campaign his budget promises were
unqualified, for good reason. If he had conceded that future surpluses
were not guaranteed, voters might have wondered whether it was wise to
lock in a 10-year tax cut.
About that 10-year tax cut: It basically takes place in two phases.
Phase I, which has mainly happened already, is a smallish tax cut for
the middle class. Phase II, which won't be completed until 2010, is a
considerably larger cut that goes mostly to the richest 1 percent of
That two-phase structure offers substantial opportunities for
misdirection. If someone suggests reconsidering future tax cuts, the
administration can accuse him of wanting to raise taxes in a recession -
implying, falsely, that he wants to reverse Phase I rather than simply
call off Phase II. On the other hand, if someone says that tax cuts have
worsened the budget picture, the administration can say that tax cuts
explain only 15 percent of the move into deficit. This sounds
definitive, but in fact it refers only to the impact of Phase I on this
year's budget; by the administration's own estimates, 40 percent of the
$4 trillion deterioration in the 10-year outlook is due to tax cuts.
There is, however, an art to this sort of deception: you have to imply
the falsehood without actually saying it outright. Last month the Office
of Management and Budget got sloppy: it issued a press release stating
flatly that tax cuts were responsible for only 15 percent of the 10-year
deterioration. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noticed, and I
reported it here.
Now for the fun part. The O.M.B. reacted angrily, and published a letter
in The Times attacking me. It attributed the misstatement to "error,"
and declared that it had been "retracted." Was it?
It depends on what you mean by the word "retract." As far as anyone
knows, O.M.B. didn't issue a revised statement conceding that it had
misinformed reporters and giving the right numbers. It simply threw the
embarrassing document down the memory hole. As Brendan Nyhan pointed out
in Salon, if you go to the O.M.B.'s Web site now you find a press
release dated July 12 that is not the release actually handed out on
that date. There is no indication that anything has been changed, but
the bullet point on sources of the deficit is gone.
Every government tries to make excuses for its past errors, but I don't
think any previous U.S. administration has been this brazen about
rewriting history to make itself look good. For this kind of thing to
happen you have to have politicians who have no qualms about playing Big
Brother; officials whose partisan loyalty trumps their professional
scruples; and a press corps that, with some honorable exceptions, lets
the people in power get away with it.
Lucky us: we hit the trifecta."