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On The Second Presidential Debate… and how stupid it was

October 17, 2012 1 comment

Tonight was a fun night to love politics. I went to an event where a room full of policy students watched the debate together. There was some mild frustration, there were a lot of laughs, and there were some tense moments that drew audible reactions. And somewhere in the middle of it all, it hit me just how stupid this whole spectacle was.

Look, there are plenty of issues to discuss from the debate. There were plenty of potentially big moments. The fact checkers will assuredly be busy. But does any of it matter? Much as cable news has devolved into entertainment, so too has political discourse–and no longer only from the talking heads. The candidates for the highest office in the land themselves are engaged in entertaining the viewers.

In the first debate, Mitt Romney was “aggressive,” which meant he interrupted. That scored well, so now everyone interrupts everyone–each other, moderators, and I’m pretty sure Obama interrupted himself once, though that may have just been a stutter. Romney said he had binders full of women, and the internet lit up with a facebook page and a blog of memes posted before the debate even ended. Obama said that the gang-bangers should be deported, and facebook newsfeeds and twitter went wild. I’m part of this. I enjoyed it. I thought that it was all pretty hilarious.

Did you see what happened when the candidates got a chance to talk to a Hispanic voter? The one who asked about undocumented workers? Did you catch her name? Because the candidates sure did. They each asked her name. Romney asked, checked, re-checked. Then Obama got his chance, and also checked to ensure he had her name right. We need the Hispanic vote! We better get that name right!

And the bickering. When are we going to learn that the only way to moderate a debate is to bestow upon the moderator the power to turn off microphones? The most blatant abuse was when Candy Crowley stated that she had to move on, and Mitt Romney said, point blank, “No.” That was the trend all night. Talking at each other, over each other, over the moderator, around the topic, off the topic, returning to topics long-since-passed.

Zingers. One-liners. Gaffes. Social media trends. Focus-tested word choice. Oh, the focus-tested word choices. You say “illegal,” I say “undocumented.” The middle class has been “crushed” and “buried.” China “cheats.” The term “good-paying jobs” was big tonight, and has always bothered me. How is that grammatically correct? Good is an adjective. Well is an adverb. If something is describing how something else pays, why don’t you use the adverb? I’m getting off track, and that’s exactly the point.

Tonight, I was a commodity. I was marketed to. Tonight, focus groups and advisers went to work to win my allegiance. And I was not convinced; I was instead entertained. This is similar to when you go to see the latest action movie and within minutes decide that it’s clearly a comedy even though it wasn’t intended to be. “So bad it’s funny,” you might say. Tonight, politics was so bad that it was funny. If only it wasn’t supposed to be so important.

On Taxes. I’m So Sick of Writing About Mitt Romney’s Tax Plan

October 16, 2012 Leave a comment

I think I’ve finally made sense out of the rhetoric about Governor Romney’s tax plan; of the independent reports and of the “6 reports” that disputed the first report. I think I know what’s going on. It was hidden in Romney’s answers tonight, of all places. Listening to President Obama and Romney discuss Romney’s tax proposals reminded me of the old Highlights Magazines in doctors’ office waiting rooms. There are two pictures side by side, and you have to pick out the differences. They’re subtle, but they’re there. Did you hear it? Were you listening?

Here it is. Obama talks about the tax rates for the top 2% (generally couples above $250,000; individuals above $200,000). If you cut those tax rates by 20%, as Romney proposes, then there don’t appear to be enough deductions to eliminate to make up for the lost revenue just from that bracket.

However, Romney talked about the top 5%, and maintaining the same share of the tax burden as they currently pay (about 60% of income taxes). Now, first of all, maintaining the same share of the tax burden does not rule out a tax cut if everyone else is also getting a tax cut. But that aside, the 5% versus the 2% is how they make the numbers work. If the top 5% are getting deductions eliminated, then revenue neutrality can be achieved even if the top 2% are getting a cut, paid for by reduced deductions for the 95th-97th percentiles (the next 3%).

I don’t know the general income numbers for those percentiles, but I have a hunch that it lines up fairly well with Martin Feldstein’s defense of Romney’s plan which called for eliminating deductions for all those making over $100,000 a year. And thus, if you make between $100,000 and $200,000 as an individual or the equivalent tax bracket as a couple, Mitt Romney’s tax plan is likely to hurt you. And that’s what we learned in tonight’s debate. Obama’s plan hurts the top 2%. Romney’s plan will probably help the top 2% on the backs of the next 3%. And hopefully, I’ll never write about Mitt Romney’s tax plan again.

On How the First Segment of the Debate Should Have Gone

October 4, 2012 Leave a comment

If you watched the debate tonight, you’ll know that for what seemed like forever, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama talked in circles mostly about Romney’s tax plan and what it would or wouldn’t do to various groups of people. It started out with Barack Obama mentioning some numbers that various independent analyses have estimated based on the general premises put forward by Mitt Romney. It went on into what looked like Obama endlessly harping on numbers and facts that Romney had already shot down quickly and with acuity. Without regard as to who was right and who was wrong, the segment (and many others) clearly looked to be “won” by Romney. But before we dig into what happened/should have happened tonight, a little background is in order.

Background

The general premises of Romney’s tax plan as it has been previously outlined are as follows: he will cut rates 20% across the board (that is lower each bracket to 4/5s of its current rate); he will close loopholes and eliminate/limit deductions in order to make up for lost revenue; he will promote growth through benefits to job creators; he will not raise taxes on the middle class.

The primary independent analysis of this generalized plan found the following: that the plan would cost $5 trillion in revenue over the next ten years; that you could not eliminate enough deductions to prevent this from resulting in a tax cut for the upper class; and that the plan would either result in increases in taxes to the middle class (through deduction eliminations that exceed their rate cuts) or abandon the goal of revenue neutrality, thus expanding the deficit.

A refute of that analysis stated that the math could be made to work… if you define upper income as $100,000 or more, then those below it will see no tax increase, and those above it will be revenue neutral; of course that would be accomplished by increases for many of those making between $100,000 and $200,000 and decreases beyond that point.

It’s all complicated and full of assumptions and guesses, mostly because the plan has not been made specific enough to be accurately scored.

The Debates

Again, Barack Obama referenced the numbers from the analysis, especially the $5 trillion in lost revenue going mainly to the rich and the potential for an increase on middle class taxes. Then, Mitt Romney claimed that he would do no such thing. Romney claimed that he would not create a net reduction for upper income tax payers, and he would not enact any plan that would lose revenue once accounting for growth (I have a feeling that his growth assumptions are likely a bit fudged, but everyone gets to make assumptions). What followed was a mercilessly long back-and-forth during which Obama said “$5 trillion” at least three more times, and Romney cleverly and repeatedly made the case that no one can say what his tax plan will or will not do because it’s his plan and he will only enact a plan that does none of those things. It was difficult to watch and it should have exposed some gigantic holes through which Obama could have jumped, but didn’t.

What Should Have Happened

Let’s pick up after Romney said that any tax plan he enacted would not reduce taxes on the wealthy, would not increase taxes on the middle class and would remain revenue neutral (not cost any money). Here’s a potential Obama response:

“Ah, this is one of those etch-a-sketch moments. Look, it’s easy to look good in a debate when you argue for a plan that is completely different than the one you’ve been proposing all along. For months, we have heard you talk about helping the wealthy–you call them ‘job creators,’ and many of them are. But we know what you mean: you mean the wealthy, and you have always touted that your plan would give back to them. For months, you have stated that your plan was to cut tax rates across the board by twenty percent and make up for the lost revenue through undisclosed loophole and deduction elimination. Well, that math didn’t work out very well–it couldn’t be done. Now, you are telling us that whatever plan you enact will be one in which the math works. So let’s hear it. You’ve had more than enough time, Governor, to come up with a plan that adds up and to share it with the American people. If you want to change your plan now, for this debate, on national television, why not give us the details, and I’ll debate them.”

Romney’s response likely would have involved several of the things that he actually did say during the circular clusterfudge of dialogue. They probably would have included that many papers came out to dispute those studies, that the math did work, and that he isn’t changing his tune. In the name of specifics, he likely would have trotted out exactly what he said in the real-world debate: “one way, for instance, would be to have a single number. Make up a number — 25,000, $50,000. Anybody can have deductions up to that amount. And then that number disappears for high-income people. That’s one way one could do it. One could follow Bowles-Simpson as a model and take deduction by deduction and make differences that way.”

And then Obama could respond: “I understand that there are various reports that say various different things about Governor Romney’s tax plan and the numbers. I’ve read them, too. The ones that make Governor Romney’s math work do so by declaring those who make over $100,000 as part of the upper class, not the middle class. Now I don’t know about you, but I think that a lot of Americans making $100,000 would still consider themselves part of the middle class. A lot of them are stretched a little thin.

“I also want to point something out, and it’s important. I’ve noticed that Governor Romney talks a lot about the things that he will do or he won’t do. He says unequivocally that he will not raise taxes on the middle class. That he will repeal Obamacare ‘on day one.’ However, whenever he is asked for specifics, he doesn’t talk about himself anymore, and he doesn’t talk in absolutes. On taxes, he says ‘one could create a cap on deductions,’ and ‘one could follow Simpson-Bowles.’ He never commits himself to doing anything. He never reveals his true intentions. He doesn’t state that something should happen or will happen, but just that it could happen. Again, Governor Romney, you’ve had more than enough time to come clean with the American people on your tax plan. Do you keep the details of your plans secret because they’re too good? Is — is it because that somehow middle-class families are going to benefit too much from them?”

That last piece of sarcasm was actually an Obama quote, but I felt like when he used it nearly two-thirds of the way through the debate and mired in a rambling health care answer, it lost some of its punch. If it was a closing line in the opening segment, maybe it carries a little more weight. But what do I know?

Anyway, I was frustrated with this exchange. I thought Romney basically equivocated his way around the tax discussion and turned it into a debate about whose numbers you believe. I think that Obama should have made it about the lack of specifics and played on the tendency of Romney to say different things about his plan to different people, making him seem wishy-washy at best, pandering and dishonest at worst. That wasn’t the only part of the debate that went poorly for Barack Obama. Hopefully soon, I’ll discuss what a failure his answer about the role of government was, and lay out my own.

On Why I Will Not Vote for Mitt Romney

October 2, 2012 3 comments

This is part 2 of a 3-post, pre-debate series on my feelings about each candidate and why I am voting the way that I am voting this November. Part 1, “On What I Don’t Like About Barack Obama,” can be seen here. Part 3, “On Why I am Voting for Barack Obama,” can be seen here.

When I was growing up, I remember commenting to my mother that it was silly that people voted so passionately on issues that were “less important,” rather than focusing on the real issues which I believed that the government should be tackling. By these less important issues, though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was talking about social issues. I just couldn’t understand why the government was even concerned with things such as abortion and gay rights when there were budgets to make and foreign policy to craft and safety to ensure and safety nets to weave. I now understand that these issues are so important to people because there are people who feel exactly the opposite of me. They can’t understand how the government could sit idly by and let things like abortion and homosexuality go forth unhindered. And thus, my desire that the government not concern itself with such things is matched by others’ insistence that the government be active in that arena. And it was this realization that pretty much ruled out most Republicans for me for the foreseeable future.

However, there are times when my childhood instincts kick in; there are times when events call for other issues to be prioritized above the social issues. At times like these, I might consider voting for someone even with a stated refusal to believe in and/or understand basic science or what I consider common decency if that person was clearly and uniquely qualified to address a specific crisis. The fiscal and economic mess in which the country currently finds itself is actually one of those times. If there was a Republican who I thought was clearly the most able to bring the nation back to fiscal and economic health through responsible and compassionate means, I would absolutely be willing to give that man four years. Mitt Romney is not that man.

I have previously stated that the Republican idea of lowering taxes (especially for the wealthy) to spur economic growth is a myth. Today, I had the pleasure of listening to Bruce Bartlett–a former Treasury Department official under Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush–in person as he frankly stated that this Republican assertion is bunk (he used coarser language). The data backs up the viewpoint of Bruce Bartlett and me. I honestly am not entirely sure how the opposing view persists in the face of so much data, but that’s an entirely different blog post that I’ve already written.

Here, we’re discussing Mitt Romney’s plan. As is well known by now, a Tax Policy Center report claimed that Romney’s plan is mathematically impossible without raising taxes on the middle class or abandoning revenue neutrality. Republican Marty Feldstein has argued that the Tax Policy Center Report is wrong. And then an article in Forbes pointed out that Feldstein’s numbers might be feasible, but they would constitute a likely tax increase on all those making above $100,000. As you can see, the Romney plan is a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a mythical version of growth economics that makes the rest of the debate moot. Romney’s views on the capital gains taxes further benefit the rich, and fly directly in the face of Ronald Reagan, a man Republicans love to channel but whose policies they choose to ignore. Reagan counted capital gains as conventional income for taxation purposes, and yet investment did not dry up.

Outside of tax policy, Romney wants to make blunt, across-the-board cuts to non-defense discretionary spending without accounting for which departments can or can’t absorb those cuts without affecting potentially important services. This is a lazy man’s budget cut devoid of the sort of in-depth analysis I would prefer for important decisions. Meanwhile, he wants to increase defense spending to 4% of the GDP. A fiscally responsible plan rarely involves increasing your largest expenditures while cutting taxes. On top of that, he wants to repeal the federal health care bill that was so closely based upon his state bill that learning about their tenets separately seems redundant (and I have been taught about both of them in a classroom setting over the past month).

So leaving aside the reputation of being an out-of-touch rich guy; leaving out the comments about the 47% that do not pay federal income taxes; leaving aside even the social issues with which I vehemently disagree, I could not vote for Mitt Romney. His prescriptions for the economy are recycled, debunked economics that clearly plays favorites to those who need no additional help. His answers on the budget are to make cuts that disregard who is impacted, but most likely hit the safety net and the poor the hardest. And his qualifications for doing these things are that he is, himself, a representative of a special interest group–rich business owners who make their money through capital gains. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but claiming that running a business prepares you to run the economy is like claiming that being a student qualifies you to be a teacher. Like his budget ideas, and like his tax policy, it just doesn’t add up.