Bold statements about the deficit and a suspicious archaeological find are put to a truth test.
Closer Look: Lead codices, spending cuts, and the deficit problem
Welcome to the second installment of "Closer Look," a regular feature in which we'll scrutinize some recent high-profile claims and assess just how well they hold up.
Last time around we took on Donald Trump, Alan Greenspan, and BP. (It might not shock you to learn that none of their claims fared all that well.) This time, we'll take a look at lead codices that some say could shed light on early Christian history; claims about spending cuts in the budget just passed by Congress; and an assertion by President Obama about the origins of our deficit problem.
The lead codices: As we told you last month, some biblical scholars believe a trove of 70 lead codices that turned up five years ago in a remote cave in eastern Jordan may date from the 1st Century C.E. They say that references to the Messiah in the codices--which are made up of wirebound individual pages, roughly the size of a credit card--could bear invaluable testimony to the last days of Jesus' life. Much of the media ate the story up. "Never has there been a discovery of relics on this scale from the early Christian movement, in its homeland and so early in its history," reported the BBC.
But it's looking more and more like the codices are fakes. The "expert" who helped convince the media of that the codices might be authentic turns out to be a fringe figure at best. Meanwhile, Peter Thonemann, a prominent scholar of ancient history at Oxford University, found that two phrases of text in the codices came from an ordinary Roman tombstone on display in a museum in Jordan, suggesting that a forger had simply copied the lines from the tombstone. Thonemann pronounced the codices "a modern forgery, produced by a resident of Amman within the last fifty years or so." Other scholars have also cast serious doubt on the codices' authenticity.
In short, we can't say with absolute certainty that the codices are forgeries--but that's certainly what the balance of evidence suggests. So we've assigned the claim that the codices are an important new archaeological find to the second lowest level on our gauge--one step above flat-out bogus.
Spending cuts: When Republicans and Democrats announced last week they'd come to a last-minute budget deal to avert a government shutdown, they said they'd agreed to $38 billion in spending cuts. The exact figure was important, because Republicans had promised their tea party supporters they'd go further--$100 billion was the original pledge, reduced to $61 billion in the House budget passed in February. So they were at pains to present $38 billion as a good first step.
But an analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found that the deal, which passed Congress yesterday, will cut spending for the year by just $352 million—less than 1 percent of the much-touted $38 billion figure. In fact, when money for emergency military action is factored in, spending may actually go up this year. How can that be? The CBO said that $13-$18 billion of the "cuts" represented money that only existed on paper, in the form of IOUs to government agencies, and wasn't likely to be spent in the near future, or perhaps ever. Other cuts went for projects that wouldn't have paid out for several years—so the money would eventually have been spent, just not this year.
This is a tricky one. On the one hand, many of these cuts will take effect eventually, just not this year. On the other, even when all is said and done, it seems certain that the $38 billion figure won't pan out. So we'll put the claim this one right in the center of our gauge: midway between airtight, and totally bogus.
The origins of our deficit problem: In his speech on deficit reduction Wednesday, President Obama declared: "America's finances were in great shape by the year 2000. We went from deficit to surplus. America was actually on track to becoming completely debt-free, and we were prepared for the retirement of the Baby Boomers."
Is that an accurate picture of how things stood at the turn of the century? Actually, yes. In 2000, we had a budget surplus of $230 billion, and both President Clinton and President Bush expressed confidence that the U.S. national debt could be paid off in full by 2010.
Were we prepared for the retirement of the Baby Boomers? "We were in a better position to deal with the Medicare changes that were coming," Stan Collender, a leading expert on the U.S. budget process who has run federal budget policy for two major international accounting firms told The Lookout. "Certainly the resources existed [thanks to the surplus] that don't exist now."
Of course, the budget gap widened quickly from there, starting with the $1.5 trillion Bush tax cuts of 2001, and continuing right up to the $787 billion Obama stimulus bill of 2009. Plenty of other budget-busting developments also played a role--including the Medicare prescription drug benefit, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the economic downturn and attendant hit to tax revenue.
All in all, Collender said, Obama's assessment is "absolutely accurate." So for the first time in the short history of Closer Look, we're going to give this claim our highest accuracy rating: airtight.