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October 16, 2012 / Joshua

This Postmodern World

So, two debates down (presidential & vice presidential). Two presidential debates to go. Commentary on the first two debates has been a surreal spectacle. I guess it is always thus.

There is far more credit given for style than for substance. News coverage is filled with instant obsession over who looked happiest to be there, who didn’t; who was most confident, who wasn’t; who smiled the most, who smirked; who looked down more, who looked more presidential; who drank the most water; and, ultimately, who “won.”

But that last question doesn’t really seem to depend on substance. The near universal consensus is that Romney won the first debate handily. I won’t deny that Obama had a lackluster night or that Romney had a stronger looking and sounding performance. But what did Romney actually say? Was it meaningful? Or was it bullshit?

I’ve read numerous reactions to his performance noting his confidence, his apparent eagerness to lead, his assumed command of the facts. But, on the whole, I saw a sketchy salesman throwing out a lot of false or questionable numbers, making bad comparisons, implying unfounded correlations, and vaguely dancing around the implications of his own ideas, while making a host of contradictory or otherwise implausible promises.

Consider: Romney said he wishes to lower spending and balance the budget. Yet he: absolutely rejected new revenue, defended tax breaks to oil companies, claimed he doesn’t want to cut education funding, doesn’t believe in cutting defense spending and will likely grow it, and wants to take away the cost reductions in Medicare President Obama has implemented. To show he’s super serious, though, he said he’d cut the meager subsidy to PBS.

Or how about this: Romney said he wants to repeal Obamacare, (while claiming he’ll somehow keep some of its popular provisions) and he wants to replace it with… something. Same thing for Dodd-Frank financial reform: he said he wants to repeal it because it goes too far, or, um, because it doesn’t do enough, or something, and he wants to again replace with… yep, you guessed it, something.

As an added incongruous bonus, when it came to the federal deficit and debt, Romney said:

[Tackling the deficit and debt is] a critical issue. I think it’s not just an economic issue. I think it’s a moral issue. I think it’s, frankly, not moral for my generation to keep spending massively more than we take in, knowing those burdens are going to be passed on to the next generation.

But I guess it’s not enough of a moral issue to get him to consider increasing taxes on the current generation, or to keep him from shielding current retirees from the Medicare reform he’d foist on the next generation, or to prevent him from seeking a dodgy tax plan that could potentially make the deficit / debt worse.

Speaking of, things got really hazy when the debate turned on Romney’s tax plan. President Obama spun Romney’s plan as a $5 trillion tax cut, which is the projected cost (over ten years) of all of his proposed cuts in tax rates. Romney rejected this point, because he claims he’ll offset his tax cuts by eliminating loopholes, exemptions, and deductions.

The problem is, while Romney has been very specific about the taxes he’d cut, he hasn’t given any examples of tax expenditures he’d eliminate. Moreover, Romney has made several overlapping promises: he will cut tax rates across the board by 20% (and eliminate other taxes); but he’ll do so without increasing the deficit, without reducing the burden being paid by high income individuals, and without increasing taxes on the middle class.

The Tax Policy Center went out of their way to make favorable assumptions for this proposal and ran the numbers. Simply put, they found that, even accounting for the elimination of loopholes, it is not mathematically possible for Romney to enact this plan while keeping all of his promises. Something would have to give somewhere –  either an increase in the deficit, or a tax increase on middle incomes. After Obama referred to this conclusion of the Tax Policy Center, this part of Romney’s response jumped out at me:

Romney: …What I’ve said is I won’t put in place a tax cut that adds to the deficit. …So there’s no economist can say Mitt Romney’s tax plan adds 5 trillion (dollars) if I say I will not add to the deficit with my tax plan.

[…]

…Now, you cite a study. There are six other studies that looked at the study you describe and say it’s completely wrong. I saw a study that came out today that said you’re going to raise taxes by 3(,000 dollars) to $4,000 on — on middle-income families. There are all these studies out there.

(See Josh Barro’s detailed post about why the “six other studies” don’t do what Romney says they do.) Romney, here, seemed to embody the sort of postmodern, epistemological problem we’re stuck within now; it’s a “you have your truth, I have mine” world now on virtually any political issue. As Romney said later at a campaign rally:

We have some members of the media that are more inclined towards my way of thinking – some others that are more inclined the other way. The good news in my opinion about the political environment today is that you could choose those sources you find to be most reliable.

I.e., to avoid being challenged or experiencing any cognitive dissonance, you can exclusively rely on those sources that you agree with, or that line up with your pre-established views. This is not a new revelation I guess, nor surprising for a Republican candidate, but in the debate Romney took it even a step further to seemingly suggest that there can be no objective analysis of his plan that contradicts his stated principle(s). That’s nonsense.

Romney is conflating principle with policy. If he were simply stating a principle to lower tax rates by a conditional amount that would fit his other goals, he might have a point. But he hasn’t done that. He started with and has stuck by his tax cut details, while wanting to get credit for possible offsets he hasn’t actually put on the table. The Tax Policy Center generously assumed possible offsets for him, and still found that the math simply doesn’t add up. So this has nothing to do with what Romney says he wants to achieve so long as he continues to deny arithmetic.

[Update: Just for fun, watch this clip of Chris Wallace calling out Romney adviser Ed Gillespie, on Fox News of all places, over the tax plan issues I’ve mentioned. That must’ve really pissed off the campaign]

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