In politics these days, there are lies, "monstrous lies," and statistics. By lies I mean the mundane nonsense that dribbles out of politicians' mouths when the facts don't suit them or they just don't know any better. By "monstrous lies," if I can borrow the phrase of the moment, I refer to the grander deceptions swallowed by whole political movements, delusions and deceptions that infect larger issues of policy and worldview.
Statistics in this case, along with pesky facts, help expose and distinguish the two species of falsehood—both of which have been on dramatic display during the GOP presidential primary campaign.
Take, for example, Michele Bachmann, who is practically a walking, talking full-employment plan for journalistic fact-checkers. Appearing at last week's Republican debate (sponsored by CNN and the Tea Party Express—does that mean that the Tea Party is now part of the lamestream media?), Bachmann repeated a favorite talking point, that the Constitution forbids states to mandate that their citizens buy health insurance, Romneycare-style. "If you believe that states can have it and that it's constitutional, you're not committed" to repealing the Affordable Care Act, she argued. But the conservative case against the healthcare law rests on the notion that because the Constitution does not explicitly authorize such a law, the federal government is barred from instituting one. Since the 10th Amendment reserves powers not delegated to the federal government back to the states, it is constitutional for, say, Massachusetts to require its citizens to purchase health insurance (or car insurance, for that matter). Bachmann's stance, one blogger at the influential conservative blog Red State argued, is "either ignorance on display or dishonest pandering."
Bachmann was even more egregious after the debate, when she went on Fox News Channel, and later the Today show, and asserted that Gardasil, the vaccine that Texas Gov. Rick Perry had tried to mandate for Texas schoolgirls, caused "mental retardation." It's such whole-cloth twaddle that even the likes of Rush Limbaugh ("she might have jumped the shark") and the Weekly Standard ("Bachmann seemed to go off the deep end") blasted her for it.
But Bachmann is literally and figuratively small potatoes, Perry's arrival having returned her to the lower tier of GOP contenders. And she is minor league compared to Perry in the "monstrous lie" department.
The phrase of course comes from his memorable description of Social Security. "It is a Ponzi scheme to tell our kids that are 25 or 30 years old today, you've paid into a program that's going to be there," Perry said at his first presidential debate. "Anybody that's for the status quo with Social Security today is involved with a monstrous lie to our kids, and that's not right." Elsewhere he has called the program "by any measure … a failure" and cited it as "by far the best example" of an extra-constitutional program "violently tossing aside any respect for our founding principles."
It's a catchy turn of argument, but one monstrously divorced from reality. His "failure" kept nearly 14 million seniors and 1.1 million children out of poverty last year, according to Census Bureau data. Here are the facts about Social Security: Without any modification, it will pay out full benefits for the next 24 years. Starting in 2035, its trust fund will no longer be able to pay full benefits. Instead it will pay roughly three quarters benefits through 2084, which is as foreseeable a future as anyone can peer into in these matters—a problematic future, but hardly a monstrous one and certainly not an impossible one. [Check out political cartoons about the budget and deficit.]
Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office has produced 30 policy recommendations, some combination of which could fix the Social Security shortfall. Here's one: Remove the payroll tax cap so that more wages are subject to the payroll tax. That would make the program solvent for the 75-year window—again, hardly a monstrous situation. (To put it another way, the Social Security shortfall figures to be roughly 0.8 percent of GDP—roughly the same as the cost of extending the Bush tax cuts over the same period.)