Your Mileage May Vary

In the category of better late than never, I should highlight Lori Montgomery’s article in Monday’s Washington Post about how the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is evaluating the health bills now working their way through the Congress.

The article focuses on Phil Ellis, a senior analyst who is helping lead CBO’s estimation efforts. Phil is an essential part of the CBO health team (indeed, one piece of advice I gave Doug Elmendorf when he took the reins at CBO was “keep Phil happy”). But I should emphasize that there are literally dozens of other folks at CBO who have been working furiously for months to help Congress understand the implications of the myriad health ideas that are under consideration. They all deserve our thanks for their efforts.

Not surprisingly, I think those efforts are essential. As the article reminds us, however, we should also keep in mind how much uncertainty there is about the ultimate impact of the health proposals. As Phil says:

“We’re always putting out these estimates: This is going to cost $1.042 trillion exactly,” he said. “But you sort of want to add, you know, ‘Your mileage may vary.’ “

That’s exactly right. The Congressional budget process demands specific estimates of how much proposed legislation will cost, so that’s what CBO produces. But reality is much more complex, and the actual costs will undoubtedly be more or less.

That uncertainty can be frustrating, but it’s unavoidable. As Nobel Laureate Nils Bohr once said, “Prediction is difficult, particularly if it’s about the future.”

Over at Capital Gains and Games, Pete Davis points out that some commentators (who may have their own agendas) use that uncertainty as a reason to criticize CBO estimates. Pete is thus concerned that the article’s sub-title (“CBO’s price tags are educated guesses, but guesses nonetheless”) may leave the wrong impression. His alternative:

“CBO’s Price Tags Are A Lot Better Than Anyone Else’s, And, Without Them, We’d Never Keep Control Over Congress’ Largess.”

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