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Pyle: Numbers that don't add up
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

"If it can't be expressed in figures, it is not science; it is opinion." — Robert Heinlein

Dan Liljenquist really had me going there for awhile.

The former Utah state senator, untiring but very long-shot challenger to Orrin Hatch's lifetime appointment to the U.S. Senate, is like some other conservatives who have made a very positive impression on this unshaven old liberal. Like Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz and former Sen. Bob Bennett, when these guys stick to the numbers, they make a lot of sense.

Once they wander into the thickets of less empirical territory — unfounded faith in markets, fanciful adherence to supply-side economics, extreme taxophobia — they lose their way. It is, as the creator of "The Notebooks of Lazarus Long" noted, the difference between science and opinion. Or fact and fantasy.

Liljenquist was in to see The Salt Lake Tribune Editorial Board the other day on his path toward the June 26 Republican primary. Like the incurable policy wonk that he is, Liljenquist wanted to talk about the big issue of our age: entitlement reform. (Wake up. This is important.)

As he says, anyone who claims to be concerned about federal budget deficits must face the fact that Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare are the main drivers of our budget problems. Arguing about anything else, as he says, is avoiding the question.

Liljenquist speaks an unpleasant truth about why health care costs so much, and why President Obama's Affordable Care Act hasn't yet reached the root of it. Health care is unique among all economic sectors for what academics call asymmetry of information. That's wonk for the fact that doctors and hospitals know everything — what you need, what you can be sold, and why the latter is often a lot more expensive than the former — while the customer knows nothing.

Liljenquist was the brains behind state-level reforms that would put Medicaid patients into a managed care model, with providers getting fixed sums for assigning patients a medical home and taking responsibility for guiding each recipient toward the most cost-effective care models we have. Yet, maddeningly, Liljenquist toes the Republican line of wanting to repeal Obamacare because, having just correctly explained why the free market doesn't work in health care, he prefers models that respect "traditional market forces."

Liljenquist also echoes some workable proposals for saving Social Security that have come from Utah's Chaffetz and Bennett. They involve relatively minor tweaks to calculating cost-of-living adjustments and some pretty major ideas about how old (say, 72) some of us may have to be before we can retire on full benefits.

Where the wheels come off is when the numbers can take you no farther, either because you have to make value judgments or because some value judgments have been built in. For Liljenquist, Chaffetz and other Republicans, the brick wall is their dogmatic rejection of progressive tax rates that would better fund Social Security, for a long time into the future, and without the need to delay retirement past average life expectancy.

There are many other places where cold, hard numbers don't support the Republican line. Stimulus works. Austerity doesn't. Tax cuts and off-the-books wars are what turned Clinton's surplus into Bush's deficits. Obama's wan stimulus has fueled neither inflation nor interest rates, but has reversed, slowly, employment trends.

Lower tax rates on the rich do not stimulate hiring. They stimulate hoarding. Unregulated banks do really stupid things, and threaten to take the rest of the world economy down with them.

It's really sad when some of the most devoted policy crunchers out there avert their eyes when the real numbers don't support the dogmas of the 1 percent.

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, invites you to check his math at facebook.com/stateofthedebate.

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