POLITICS

Important Fact-Check: 108,000,000,000 ÷ 12,000,000 = 9,000

03/25/2015 02:03 pm ET | Updated Mar 25, 2015
Win McNamee via Getty Images

The Washington Post's resident fact-checker, Glenn Kessler, has a pretty important corrective to mete out to an unsuspecting congressman today. Specifically this: 108 billion divided by 12 million equals 9,000, and not -- as some believe -- 5 million. Can't stress this enough. All of which raises an important question: Where was Kessler when I desperately needed a trigonometry tutor?

The backstory on this stems from a statement made by Rep. Pete Session (R-Texas) on March 24 on the floor of the House. Sessions, who was at the time apparently sleepwalking his way through another rote attack on Obamacare, said the following:

If you just do simple multiplication, 12 million [insured individuals] into $108 billion, we are talking literally every single [Obamacare] recipient would be costing this government more than $5 million per person for their insurance. It's staggering ... $108 billion for 12 million people is immoral. It's unconscionable.

It certainly would be unconscionable if numbers worked like that -- and maybe they do in an upside-down world where you describe a plain act of long division as "simple multiplication." But as Kessler points out, Sessions' math gets weirder still:

None of Sessions' numbers make much sense, however. The Congressional Budget Office, in a March report, said that the cost of coverage in fiscal 2016 for Obamacare (in the exchanges and Medicaid expansion) would be $95 billion, after penalty payments and other revenue. But the reduction in the number of uninsured Americans would be 23 million people.

So if you do the math correctly, that's a cost of $4,130 per uninsured individual in 2016. So that's less than half the figure that would have resulted from properly dividing Sessions' numbers.

It's always nice to find a journalist who's not afraid to be servicey. But I'd take issue with one part of Kessler's work here -- where he places the blame for this incident. "Sometimes a lawmaker will wander on the floor of the House or Senate and begin speaking without any notes," Kessler writes, adding, "That's a big mistake."

Perhaps. But I don't think that the failure to bring notes to the floor of the House is at issue here. When Kessler contacted Sessions' office, he was told that the representative "had gotten his numbers mixed up" and what Sessions had wanted to convey was that the Affordable Care Act "had cost $1.2 trillion over the past three years, and yet had only covered 20 million people." Therefore, the "unconscionable" number at which Sessions had intended to arrive was $50,000. Mixing up 50,000 with 5 million is still a bit of a howler, but in a narrow sense, the "should have brought some notes" advice seems solid.

However, Kessler surmised that this contention had the faint aroma of a nonsensical story that originated in the Daily Mail, which had already been fatally perforated by fact-checkers for its amateurish level of innumeracy. Per Kessler: "The problem with the Daily Mail calculation is that the newspaper took a ten-year budget number and divided by the number of insured individuals in a single year. No serious budget or health expert would use that kind of calculation."

But what if you are Pete Sessions, wholly unmoored from any requirement to be "serious"? You just say whatever you like, without concern that the source you're citing is a newspaper that routinely plays fast and loose with the facts. So this is not a problem that any number of notecards would have solved. Maybe there was a brief, mad moment as Sessions began to form the words "5 million" when he thought, "Wait a minute, that doesn't sound right." But he went for it, and he's not sorry, and this Kessler column represents the totality of the political consequences that Sessions will have to face. Next time, 10 million? Sure, ok, this isn't rocket science.

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