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Flocks of Numbers

This is the season of big numbers. They seem to migrate through town in February like immense flocks of geese. For a few days the two main caches of numbers had been the Bush budget (ritually described as D.O.A. by congressional Democrats -- has there ever been a presidential budget that didn't get greeted with precisely that phrase?) and Social Security, but this morning there's a third set, involving Medicare's prescription drug benefit. The human ability to discern patterns enables us to see that in every case the true cost of something is underreported. We get lied to. The concept of truth in advertising has yet to reach the nation's capital. Politicians of both major parties find it easy to spend money and extremely hard to raise the taxes to pay the bill. So they pretend there's no fiscal gap, or downplay the deficit, or imagine that their entitlement programs will be cheaper than they really will be. And the politicians have a great asset: Most of us aren't very good at math. Our eyes glaze over when numbers start flying. It's hard to keep the billions and trillions straight. We want so badly to ignore it all, to put this actuarial stuff out of our minds, and let the next generation deal with it. But those geese are sure honking up a storm.

By Joel Achenbach  |  February 9, 2005; 9:29 AM ET
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