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October 09, 2012 2:46 PM Bring Out the Hand Puppets

By Ed Kilgore

I greatly admire policy wonks who go to the trouble to try to explain their work to non-policy-wonks. It’s not a universal trait of the breed, by any means; indeed, some work hard to keep their analysis as obscure as possible, the better to make their conclusions politically useful.

But William Gale of the Urban-Brookings Joint Tax Center, presumably because the analysis of Mitt Romney’s tax proposals that he co-authored became a point of contention in the first presidential debate, tries real hard in a new op-ed at the Brookings site to explain why the objections to his basic findings don’t make a lot of sense:

In a recent paper I wrote with two colleagues, we showed that a revenue-neutral plan that met five specific goals that Governor Romney had put forth (reducing income tax rates by 20 percent, repealing the estate tax, the alternative minimum tax, and capital income taxes for middle class households, and enhancing saving and investment) would cut taxes for households with income above $200,000, and—as a result of revenue-neutrality—would therefore necessarily have to raise taxes on taxpayers below $200,000.
This was true even when we bent over backwards to make the plan as favorable to Romney as possible. We considered an unrealistically progressive way of financing the specified tax reductions. We accounted for revenue feedback coming from potential economic growth estimates as estimated by Romney advisor Greg Mankiw. We even ignored the need to finance about a trillion dollars in Romney’s proposed corporate cuts.
Our conclusion was not a prediction about Governor Romney would do as President, it was an arithmetic calculation: all of the promises couldn’t be met simultaneously without resorting to tax increases on households with income below $200,000.

Since people are struggling with this fairly simple premise, and the Romney campaign is trying very hard to dispute it with all sorts of misdirection, basically just repeating his promises, Gale tries this analogy:

Suppose Governor Romney said that he wants to drive a car from Boston to Los Angeles in 15 hours. And suppose some analysts employed tools of arithmetic to conclude that “If Governor Romney wants to drive from Boston to LA in 15 hours, it is mathematically impossible to avoid speeding.” After all, the drive from LA to Boston is about 3,000 miles, so to take only 15 hours would require an average of 200 miles per hour. Certainly other road trips are possible — but the particular one proposed here is not.
The Obama campaign might put ads out that say Romney wants to speed or is going to speed. Romney’s campaign might respond by saying the study is a “joke” and “partisan,” that he supports speeding laws and would never, ever speed, and it is ridiculous to suggest that he would. The Romney campaign and its surrogates might say that the analysts must be wrong because they don’t even know what his road plan is or which car he would drive. Besides, Romney never really said he wanted to go LA, he might want to go somewhere closer; he could get to LA without speeding if he took more than 15 hours; he could get somewhere else in 15 hours without speeding. And so on.
With a few substitutions, this is almost exactly how the tax debate has evolved. Substitute “the various tax cuts Romney has proposed” for “driving from Boston to LA;” substitute revenue-neutrality for “in 30 hours; substitute “tax increases on households with income below 200k and tax cuts for higher income households” for “speeding” and you have the basic story: Romney can’t do all of the tax cut proposals he has advocated, remain revenue neutral, and avoid taxing households with income below $200,000 or cutting taxes for higher income households.

Now you can’t blame Gale for expressing agnosticism about Romney’s actual intentions. You know and I know that reducing tax rates on high earners and reducing or eliminating taxes on corporations, capital investments, and inheritances is Holy Grail among conservatives these days, which is precisely why Romney (under a lot of pressure to do so) came out with his plan in the first place. But as Gale notes, the Romney reaction does not involve a clear recitation of which incompatible goal he will abandon, but simply a denial that there’s any real problem. How many people watching the debate or following this argument in any venue have any idea what it’s really all about? They just hear Romney saying some studies support Obama and some studies support me, so let’s just agree to disagree, but stop lying about my proposals!

What Gale is doing is getting out the hand puppets and insisting that there’s an analytical point here that shouldn’t get lost, and it’s important: Romney is making promises that do not and cannot add up.

Now there’s a lot of magic in Romney’s proposals, domestic and international, and you can’t expect one tax wonk to cast light on them all. But Gale has shown it’s possible, with some effort, to get beyond the BS. If any wonk with access to a web site or a television screen would make a similar effort, we might get somewhere in promoting public understanding of what life in a Romney administration might look like. You’d like to think the folks who make Sesame Street would donate some puppets to help the cause along, but alas, they’ve got a non-partisan tax status to protect, so that’s off the table.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • Peter C on October 09, 2012 3:12 PM:

    "Now you can’t blame Gale for expressing agnosticism about Romney’s actual intentions."

    I disagree. When you catch someone in a blatant calculated lie, and they double down, it is really easy to rule out good intentions.

  • Jim Strain on October 09, 2012 3:32 PM:

    Now THERE is a story problem I can understand. Nicely done.

  • John on October 09, 2012 3:33 PM:

    What I don't understand about Gale's contention here is how a tax increase on households with income below $200,000 can be consistent with a 20% decrease in income tax rates. Wouldn't it make more sense to just say that Romney's proposal doesn't add up at all?

  • Clevergirl on October 09, 2012 3:46 PM:

    Don't forget to put a dog on the top of his station wagon.

  • Ron Byers on October 09, 2012 3:58 PM:

    John, Romney says he is going to eliminate deductions to make up the 5 trillion. Guess which tax deductions he is going to eliminate. That is right, all of the deductions that are meaningful to people making less than $200,000. You know, your mortgage deduction, the charitable deduction, health care deductions of all types, deductions for state property and sales taxes. The things that really benefit you and me.

  • Tom Dibble on October 09, 2012 4:54 PM:


    Expositive Romney:

    Studies disagree. Some studies say I have two apples in this bag, and some studies say I have two apples in this other bag. And, I have a study saying I want five apples. Those five studies obviously trump your one partisan study claiming 2 + 2 is not 5!

    I'm sorry, but "studies" never trump basic mathematics. Of course, the same was true in the first Bush-Gore debate, and we can see how well that turned out...

  • c u n d gulag on October 09, 2012 5:04 PM:

    Why can't our MSM write, or broadcast, simple analogies like this?

    Instead, when Paul Ryan tells them the math is too wonky, and it's too long, they sit there and go, "Ok - there it is! It's too complicated and too long for the regular people out there. I mean, if I'M not interested in it, why should the poor schlubs out there care?"

    OY!!!

  • John on October 09, 2012 8:43 PM:

    Ron - okay, that makes sense, I guess. I guess my assumption is that Romney has also made statements claiming that nobody's overall tax burden will go up - at least I would assume that he's said that.

    It basically just seems like "Romney would raise taxes on the middle class" is the wrong way to talk about it - what's really going on here is "Romney's math doesn't add up."