What is gained by cooking the books?

In the previous two posts (here and here) I discussed how the government cooks the books, particularly with regard to unemployment, inflation, economic growth, and budget deficits, to give people a much rosier picture of the state of the economy than is the case. What is to be gained by this and who benefits?

In his article titled NUMBERS RACKET: Why the economy is worse than we know in the May 2008 issue of Harper’s magazine, Kevin Phillips says:

[S]ince the 1960s, Washington has been forced to gull its citizens and creditors by debasing official statistics: the vital instruments with which the vigor and muscle of the American economy are measured. The effect, over the past twenty five years, has been to create a false sense of economic achievement and rectitude, allowing us to maintain artificially low interest rates, massive government borrowing, and a dangerous reliance on mortgage and financial debt even as real economic growth has been slower than claimed… the use of deceptive statistics has played its own vital role in convincing many Americans that the U.S. economy is stronger, fairer, more productive, more dominant, and richer with opportunity than it actually is.

What is the reality? Phillips says that “Based on the criteria in place a quarter century ago, today’s U.S. unemployment rate is somewhere between 9 percent and 12 percent; the inflation rate is as high as 7 or even 10 percent; economic growth since the recession of 2001 has been mediocre, despite a huge surge in the wealth and incomes of the superrich, and we are falling back into recession.” (Note that Phillips was writing this in early 2008 just at the onset of the current recession when the ‘official’ unemployment rate was around 5% or half the current value. The real unemployment rate now is probably around 20%.)

Cooking the books to make things appear rosier is not done just for psychological reasons, to make people feel good about the state of the economy. While it does help the government politically if the public thinks that the economy is growing, inflation is low, and the government is living within its means, the main reason for cooking the books is that these numbers carry with them serious financial and budgetary implications.

Of them, the most important is the inflation rate. For one thing, social security benefits increases are tied to inflation rates. By making CPI rates seem low, the government can pay seniors less. Philips quotes economic analyst John Williams who says that “if you were to peel back changes that were made in the CPI going back to the Carter years, you’d see that the CPI would now be 3.5 percent to 4 percent higher”- meaning that, because of lost CPI increases, Social Security checks would be 70 percent greater than they currently are.” So by keeping CPI numbers artificially low, the government saves money (which it then spends on wars and tax cuts for the rich) at the expense of poor seniors who are being gradually squeezed into greater poverty but may not understand why that is happening since their benefit payouts are supposed to be rising along with with the cost of living.

But in addition to that, inflation rates are closely tied to interest rates. By keeping interest rates low, the government and business can borrow money cheaply. Borrowing is the only way that American government can finance its operating deficits, continue to fund its endless expensive wars, and maintain the oligarchic looting that has enriched a few while impoverishing the many. Low interest rates were also the basis of the housing bubble. If official inflation rates rise to their real value, the edifice comes crashing down. The collapse of the subprime market was an indicator of the underlying fear that the inflation rate, and along with it interest rates, was going to rise. As Phillips says:

Undermeasurement of inflation, in particular, hangs over our heads like a guillotine. To acknowledge it would send interest rates climbing, and thereby would endanger the viability of the massive buildup of public and private debt (from less than $11 trillion in 1987 to $49 trillion last year) that props up the American economy. Moreover, the rising cost of pensions, benefits, barrowing, and interest payments-all indexed or related to inflation-could join with the cost of financial bailouts to overwhelm the federal budget. As inflation and interest rates have been kept artificially suppressed, the United States has been indentured to its volatile financial sector, with its predilection for leverage and risky buccaneering. Arguably, the unraveling has already begun.

As Robert Hardaway, a professor at the University of Denver, pointed out last September, the subprime lending crisis “can be directly traced back to the [1983] BLS decision to exclude the price of housing from the CPI… With the illusion of low inflation inducing lenders to offer 6 percent loans, not only has speculation run rampant on the expectations of ever-rising home prices, but home buyers by the millions have been tricked into buying homes even though they only qualified for the teaser rates.”

The only way that the US government can continue on its reckless path is if other entities are willing to loan it money by buying its securities. While it can use the social security trust fund to do so (because it controls it), it needs other nations and their sovereign funds to also buy them. In this, the US currently benefits from the dollar still being the world’s reserve currency. If other countries start to hold back from buying US treasury bonds, the government might have to lure them with higher interest rates. That would make budget deficits even worse and rapidly create problems with the ability to repay.

So where are we headed? Paul Craig Roberts, a former editor of the Wall Street Journal and an assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury during the Reagan administration, says that the outlook is gloomy.

With the US bankrupting itself in wars, America’s largest creditor, China, has taken issue with America’s credit rating. The head of China’s largest credit rating agency declared: “The US is insolvent and faces bankruptcy as a pure debtor nation.”

On July 12, Niall Ferguson, an historian of empire, warned that the American empire could collapse suddenly from weakness brought on by its massive debts and that such a collapse could be closer than we think.

The sense of foreboding is widespread, spanning the ideological spectrum. David Stockman, budget director during the time that Ronald Reagan was indulging his supply-side fantasies, thinks the day of reckoning is nigh and that the present Republican leadership is captive to “the delusion that the economy will outgrow the deficit if plied with enough tax cuts… It is not surprising, then, that during the last bubble (from 2002 to 2006) the top 1 percent of Americans — paid mainly from the Wall Street casino — received two-thirds of the gain in national income, while the bottom 90 percent — mainly dependent on Main Street’s shrinking economy — got only 12 percent.”

Paul Krugman also sees disaster looming, saying, “I’m starting to have a sick feeling about prospects for American workers — but not, or not entirely, for the reasons you might think. Yes, growth is slowing, and the odds are that unemployment will rise, not fall, in the months ahead. That’s bad. But what’s worse is the growing evidence that our governing elite just doesn’t care — that a once-unthinkable level of economic distress is in the process of becoming the new normal.” (my italics)

With the oligarchy having its hands in the national till and looting it for their own benefit, I think collapse is inevitable. You can postpone the say of reckoning by cooking the books, but reality will eventually catch up with you. It is for all these reasons that I think the US is in serious trouble unless it changes course.

POST SCRIPT: The oligarchy’s solution to every problem



  1. says

    This is a whole vicious cycle that is causing big problem with the US economy. First you have the predatory lenders who preys on ignorant borrowers. Then money becomes easy to obtain through various sources, and people get the false sense that they have wealth. And eventually when the real estate market crashed, so does the “wealth” of the people, which eventually leads to many bankruptcies. I put myself in that position and is still wheeling from the mistake that I have made. But hopefully we all can rebound from this difficult economic times.


  2. says

    You raise an excellent point on inflation being tied to social security benefits. While it hurts seniors now, the real key is the future. The massive drain on benefits as the baby boomers head into retirement is a pivotal issue. Cooking the books to keep the inflation rate artificially low is the means to saving billions of dollars on distributions.

    An interesting play on all of this is the Automatic IRA Act that is winding its way through Congress. The Act would require businesses with more than 10 employees that don’t offer a retirement plan to automatically enroll employees in Roth IRAs. What would be the default investment? A type of government bond! This would appear to be a first step in forced investment in government bonds to provide more revenues. Scary.

  3. says

    While US is an engine for the global economy, when the engine chokes, the machine is in trouble. Governments tend to forget that they work FOR the people and people are neglected when governments use words like MACRO, referring to the big picture. Donna has a point, are there any suggestions for ways to correct the trend?

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