It's good to be known as an optimist.
It keeps people from realizing you're actually a boob.
That's the guiding principle behind the Consensus Economic Forecasting Commission, a state panel of experts on trends in the Maine economy. You don't get appointed to such a prestigious post because you have a reputation for boobery. But being recognized for your positive outlook goes a long way toward enhancing your qualifications.
And don't worry if you don't know anything about economics. As former state auditor Rodney Scribner once said of his erratic fiscal prognostications, "Revenue forecasting is an art, not a science."
Less like Michelangelo, apparently, and more like Jackson Pollock.
So, forget about the technicalities. Just keep smiling, and your sunny disposition will see you through. It's basically the same approach you'd take if you found yourself in a court hearing to assess your mental competence to stand trial.
All you need to do to look like an expert is to follow the example of the chairman of the commission, former state economist Charles Colgan. In January 2008, as the national economy turned sour, Colgan told the Legislature's Appropriations Committee to chill out. According to an Associated Press news story, he said a national recession wouldn't be too deep, wouldn't last too long and wouldn't have much effect on Maine.
Blue skies, nothing but blue skies.
By October of last year, it had become obvious that everything Colgan had predicted was completely wrong, so he reassessed. According to the AP, "Colgan said Maine is likely to experience recessionary conditions worse than those of 2001 but not as bad as 1990-1991." His commission issued a report that concluded, "The economic situation for Maine, while worse than thought, is not catastrophic."
Walking on rainbows.
In April of this year, Colgan did finally acknowledge, in a Capitol News Service story, that he was slightly off the mark in his January 2008 determination that this non-catastrophic recession would cost Maine only about 18,000 jobs over two years. He sort of had to admit he was off the mark, because by then, the state had already lost that many jobs and more. The cutbacks, he said, would probably amount to closer to 36,000 paid positions. But don't despair, said Goodtime Charlie. Recovery is still on the way in 2010. By 2011, we'll be right back to prosperity.
Colgan's reputation as Maine's foremost economic expert hasn't suffered due to his errors. He's still in charge of the group making the projections upon which state revenue forecasts are based.
That's because he's not a boob. He's an optimist.
And he's not the only one. Ryan Low, the Baldacci administration's finance commissioner, is hardly the type to wallow in misery. When monthly revenue figures collapsed in September 2008, he gamely asserted to Capitol News that the problem was "timing issues, and when that is figured in, we are doing better than it looks."
Good thing, too, because otherwise we might have become unduly concerned about a shortfall that, over the next eight months, would grow to more than $500 million. Not Low, though. He isn't the type to panic. Or accept reality.
Late last month, he told Capitol News, "After July revenues [are in], I hope we will have a better idea whether this [shortfall] is a trend or not."
Call me impetuous, but I'm not inclined to wait. I'm declaring it a trend right now.
I'm being influenced by reports showing preliminary revenue figures for June were off by $50 million. That red ink came about even though estimates of how much tax money the state would collect that month were revised — downward — as recently as April by Colgan's group and another panel of like-minded optimists.
"Not surprisingly, we are expecting a difficult month again next month," Low told the Appropriations Committee on July 9, according to the Bangor Daily News. He said the looming deficit was "largely due to the weather."
At least, he's given up on the "timing issues" excuse.
The real problem with the state budget is income estimates are being made by a bunch of boobs, who continue to ignore evidence that the recession is far worse than they anticipated.
The solution is to bring in some pessimists.
If, over the past year, there'd been a few gloom-and-doom types in charge of pulling numbers out of thin air, there might have been some assumptions made that the economy was tanking. Pessimists tend to think like that. Otherwise, they lose their depression licenses.
The nay-sayers wouldn't have been satisfied projecting a mere $500 million shortfall. They'd have gone for $750 million. Or $1 billion.
What's the worst that could happen, they'd ask themselves. Whatever it is, let's go with that. Even if we're completely wrong about how bad things are going to get, the result will be that we'll end up with a surplus.
There's a name for people who make mistakes like that.
Get fiscal with me by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.