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Jewish World Review July 24, 2000 /21 Tamuz, 5760

Thomas Sowell

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Consumer Reports

Government advertising -- THERE HAVE BEEN many complaints about the amount of advertising that bombards us every day. However, one of the most massive bombardments of advertising is seldom complained about, because it isn't even recognized as advertising.

Government advertises incessantly -- and at the taxpayers' expense. The most obvious example is the huge amount of self-advertising sent out by members of Congress under their franking privileges. The White House's spin machine has become legendary over the past couple of years and -- judging by the polls -- one of the most effective advertising campaigns of all time.

All this is just scratching the surface of government advertising. Every agency at every level proclaims at every opportunity the crying need for its services. The fact that their "informational" publications and "public service" announcements are not officially called advertising only makes them more effective.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, has put out an advertising brochure titled Waiting in Vain: An Update on America's Rental Housing Crisis. It tells us, among other things, that the waiting times for getting into public housing and for getting Section 8 vouchers for subsidized housing in the private sector are both increasing.

This is not a confession of bureaucratic delays, by any means. On the contrary, it is a declaration that Congress should act to keep housing "affordable" and that the Clinton administration "is working on a number of approaches to address this looming threat." Not a dime of this political advertising was paid for by campaign contributions. Nor would it be stopped by campaign finance reform.

Not all advertising has to be this direct or this blatant to be effective. Vast amounts of statistics are collected by a wide range of government agencies that can pick the categories and the emphases in their statistics to buttress whatever the various agencies happen to be promoting.

For example, when statistics showed that women's working careers were not as continuous as those of men, such statistics were simply no longer kept. This enabled those who wanted more government intervention to argue that women and men with the "same" qualifications were being paid differently.

Evidence that they were not really the same was simply no longer published. Evidence does not have to be completely omitted. It can be made rare and be buried under tons of other statistics covered in a way that promotes the political vision of those who do the collecting. Census income data, for example, are overwhelmingly about the relative incomes of this group versus that group, rather than about the general wellbeing of Americans as a whole.

Income comparisons between groups go on and on in Census publications -- in tables, graphs, pie-charts. What is much harder to find in all this statistical cornucopia is just how much money it takes to be in those top 10 or 20 percent of income-earners who are so often and so blithely classified as "the rich." A sufficiently long search through a sufficiently high stack of Census reports will eventually unearth the fact that any household with a total income of $80,000 is in the top 20 percent. A couple making $40,000 each are thus among "the rich," whose taxes we must not cut, lest we be accused of pandering to entrenched wealth.

Almost all government statistics on the distribution of income and wealth are about categories, rather than people. If every millionaire in America went broke, and if a corresponding number of people born in poverty became millionaires, most of us would think that this was an incredible redistribution of income and wealth. But it would be no redistribution at all, according to the way statistics are presented by those who talk about inequality. They compare income brackets, rather than the people who are constantly moving in and out of all those brackets.

Those who oppose the constant expansion of government have to recognize the role of this day-in-and-day-out advertising in the political equation -- and do something about it when they have the opportunity. But a party that controls both houses of Congress and cannot even get rid of the National Endowment for the Arts can hardly be expected to make major institutional changes to at least sharply reduce the ability of operating agencies to turn data-gathering into advertising for more money and power.

Given the lopsided liberalism of the media and the massive disguised advertising for more expansive government, "campaign finance reform" would just shut down competing voices.

JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author, most recently, of The Quest for Cosmic Justice.


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