Thomas Sowell

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.

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

Creators Syndicate