From Henry Aaron, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, comes a pop quiz that’s fun to take and tests our assumptions and presumptions about the hot button topics of our day—government spending, Social Security, and healthcare spending. It’s a good check-up for reporters and for anybody who cares about this stuff.
Question 1: The federal government is spending a larger share of national income then at any time since World War II—True or False?
Question 2: The federal government is collecting a larger share of national income in taxes than at any time since World War II—True or False?
Question 3: Social Security is currently running a deficit—True or False?
Question 4: Healthcare spending is outpacing the growth of income—True or False?
OK? The answers:
All are false. Surprised? Aaron says he suspects large majorities of Americans would answer “true” to at least one of these questions, and many might answer true to all of them. False—or at least incomplete—messages circulate constantly, and the press helps transmit them. Persistent special interests have a way of making you believe what’s not true. But facts are facts. If you want to know more about why the answers are false, Aaron offers explanations and context in his post at the Brookings website.
We have to hand it to Aaron. This might capture peoples’ attention. In his blog post, he makes the case that the “misinformation that stands behind the incorrect answers to these questions is doing the nation vast harm,” and he gives some examples.
Aaron also invokes an oh-so-relevant quote attributed to the late New York Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, known for a clever turn of phrase. Said Moynihan: “It isn’t what you don’t know that hurts you. It’s what you know that isn’t so.”
On Social Security, the persistent myth of the Greedy Geezer, which has raced through the media and helped frame an arguably harmful kids vs. seniors meme, is a good example of exactly what Moynihan meant.