2013-11-29 / Columns

Politics & other Mistakes

Wrong number
By Al Diamon

What if there was a political figure who frequently made wildly inaccurate statements about public policy? I’m talking about somebody with a long record of regularly getting it wrong.

No reporter would quote a source like that, at least not without fact-checking every detail.

No businessperson would consider planning for a company’s future based on such a sketchy pattern of behavior. No voter, whether liberal or conservative, would be influenced in marking a ballot because of such an addiction to imprecision.

This person’s credibility would be nonexistent.

Republican Gov. Paul LePage? Not hardly.

Sure, LePage screws up from time to time, but he occasionally gets one right. Compared to the guy I have in mind, he’s the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Library of Congress and Alex Trebek all rolled into one.

I’m referring to Charlie Colgan, a professor at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School for Public Service and a former state economist. The biggest difference between Colgan and LePage isn’t that the former is wrong more than the latter (although he is). It’s that the news media, the business community and the voters don’t seem to mind.

On Nov. 13, Colgan issued a report for the New England Economic Education Partnership (motto: We Don’t Care What Idiotic Things Economists Say As Long As There Are Lots Of Cool Charts And Graphs) in which he predicted Maine would fully recover from the recent recession in 2018.

Earlier this year, he said it would be 2017.

A little later in 2013, he thought it might be 2016.

In 2012, he guessed more like 2015.

In 2011, he estimated it would be 2013 or 2014.

In 2010, sometime in 2012 or 2013 seemed reasonable.

In 2009, he figured recovery could arrive in 2010.

According to the Jan. 8, 2013 Portland Press Herald, he’s now saying, “Maine is still waiting for the recovery to begin.”

If he ever decides to seek a new career, Colgan would be ideally suited for a position as one of those end-of-the-world preachers who advise their flocks to sell all their worldly possessions and follow them to some inconvenient mountain top to await shuttle service to the hereafter.

It’s not just the recovery or the rapture that Colgan gets wrong. In 2008, he confidently prognosticated the state would lose only about 1,000 jobs in a mild recession and 6,000 in a severe downturn. In the next year, Maine saw 12,000 jobs disappear. In 2009, Colgan refigured his math and came up with a worst-case scenario of 17,000 vanished jobs. By year’s end, the state was down nearly 30,000.

For 18 years, Colgan was one of the five members of the state’s Consensus Economic Forecasting Commission (motto: Charts! Graphs! How Could We Possibly Go Wrong With Cool Stuff Like That?). After LePage won the governorship in 2010, Colgan wasn’t reappointed. Even a guy who gets it wrong a lot couldn’t put up with one who misfired all the time.

It’s not as if Colgan isn’t aware of his shortcomings. Earlier this year, he admitted to the Bangor Daily News that his annual forecasts have been consistently off the mark on the side of optimism. But he doesn’t seem to learn from his mistakes. A year before, he told the Press Herald: “(T) he case for pessimism is, I think, a pretty strong one.” Lately in interviews, he’s taken to referring to his analysis of the economy as a “forlorn hope.”

Nevertheless, the media continue to report on whatever he announces as if it were important. Earlier this month, the Lewiston Sun Journal quoted him as saying unemployment would drop to 6 percent by 2016 due to “robust job growth.”

On the same day, the Press Herald had him claiming that except for professional and business positions and openings in the leisure and hospitality trades, there’d be job losses in virtually all other sectors for the foreseeable future.

Well, at least one of those assertions is bound to be correct.

After Colgan gave a speech in September warning that unless Maine could attract 60,000 young workers in the next 20 years, the state faced financial disaster, the reaction was something less than panic in the streets. As House GOP leader Ken Fredette told the Bangor Daily, “If we want to reverse the trend of the past few decades, then maybe we should start listening to new economists.”

Colgan’s next round of predictions is due in January. You’ve been warned.

Clarification: In last week’s column, I said the Maine Senate was originally composed of two senators from each county. As apportionment expert Kevin Lamoreau pointed out to me, that isn’t strictly true.

Over the years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s “One Man, One Vote” ruling in 1964, northern and rural parts of the state often got more representation in the Legislature than their populations entitled them to, thanks to a variety of schemes designed to limit the influence of such odious entities as Democrats and Portlanders. But there was never a rule granting each county two senators.

Got a more accurate crystal ball than Charlie Colgan? Email me at aldiamon@herniahill.net.

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