Tag Archives: politics

The Economist on Romney’s Fiscal Policy

By James Kwak

It should be no surprise that I am voting for Barack Obama on Tuesday, despite all his flaws and failures of the past four years. There are just too many dimensions on which he is clearly preferable to Mitt Romney. One of the more important ones, on which I spent most of last year (writing White House Burning), is fiscal policy. And here, since anything I write will be dismissed by many readers as liberal propaganda, is The Economist on the topic:

“Yet far from being the voice of fiscal prudence, Mr Romney wants to start with huge tax cuts (which will disproportionately favour the wealthy), while dramatically increasing defence spending. Together those measures would add $7 trillion to the ten-year deficit. He would balance the books through eliminating loopholes (a good idea, but he will not specify which ones) and through savage cuts to programmes that help America’s poor (a bad idea, which will increase inequality still further). At least Mr Obama, although he distanced himself from Bowles-Simpson, has made it clear that any long-term solution has to involve both entitlement reform and tax rises. Mr Romney is still in the cloud-cuckoo-land of thinking you can do it entirely through spending cuts: the Republican even rejected a ratio of ten parts spending cuts to one part tax rises.”

That’s just about the same summary I would have written.

Why Do People Think the Race Is a Tossup?

By James Kwak

There’s been a minor controversy in the blogosphere not about whether Obama or Romney should be president, and not about whether Obama or Romney is ahead in the polls, but about the esoteric question of whether one should interpret the polls to mean that Obama is the favorite or that the race is a “tossup.” This debate has largely swirled around Nate Silver, who aggregates polling data, recalculates confidence intervals, and incorporates other factors (drawn from analysis of previous elections), and for the past few weeks has rated Obama as having about a 60–80% chance of winning the election. In response, various members of the pundit class have argued that the national polls show a tied race, polls can’t predict the future, or even that since both sides (supposedly) think each has a 50.1 percent chance of winning, their chances must be equal. (See Felix Salmon for a summary.)

Silver has responded to all of the coherent objections that might be made to his forecast, in detail. But what’s at work here isn’t a reasoned debate about how to interpret polls. It’s sheer innumeracy, pure and simple. The statement that Obama has about a 75–80 percent chance of winning is roughly equivalent to the statement—which no one contests—that his average lead in Ohio is about 2–3 points, once you take the confidence interval into account. As Silver has said, it’s analogous to the statement that a team that’s ahead by a field goal deep in the fourth quarter has a better chance of winning than the team that’s behind; no one would call that game a “tossup,” even though either team could win. Even if you can’t predict the next turnover or breakaway running play, that wouldn’t lead you to believe the three-point lead is irrelevant.

It’s the same thing we saw in Moneyball—people who can’t understand numbers claiming that numbers have no practical value. Unfortunately, in political journalism the sample size is so small and the monetary stakes are so low that the incoherent innumerates will never be drummed out of the marketplace.

Revolving Doors Matter

By James Kwak

It is common fare for people like me to point disapprovingly to the revolving door between business and government, which ensures that every Treasury Department is well stocked with representatives of Goldman Sachs. In 13 Bankers, the revolving door was one of the three major channels through which the financial sector influenced government policy, alongside campaign contributions and the ideology of finance. The counterargument comes in various forms: people like Robert Rubin and Henry Paulson are dedicated civil servants who wouldn’t favor their firms or their industries, the government needs people with appropriate industry experience, etc.

It is certainly possible that industry experts provide valuable skills and experience to the government. But that value comes with a cost; put another way, it’s not just the public good that benefits. Using data on Defense Department appointments, Simon Luechinger and Christoph Moser (paper; Vox summary) measured the impact of political appointments on the stock market valuation of appointees’ former firms; they also measured the impact on firms’ stock market valuations of hiring a former government official. In both cases, the stock market reacted positively to new turns of the revolving door. Here’s the chart for political appointments:

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Bobbing and Weaving

By James Kwak

Mitt Romney’s latest attempt to make his tax plan seem plausible (that is to say, not a pack of blatant lies) is the idea of capping deductions at some level, like $17,000 or $25,000. Of course, as we all know, it doesn’t add up; Dylan Matthews provides a quick summary. If you cap deductions and you cut rates by 20 percent, everyone’s taxes go down, and the very rich (but not the super-super-rich) benefit the most.

This shouldn’t be news to anyone, because this problem has already been solved in its general form: there’s no way his numbers add up, because you could eliminate all the tax breaks for the rich and still not pay for a 20 percent rate cut. I confess I have some attachment to this issue because I think I was one of the first people to point out the mathematical impossibility of the Romney tax plan (the day after he announced the 20 percent rate cut).

Unfortunately, of course, this is all about politics, and arithmetic coherence is not the bar Romney needs to clear. He just needs to get enough undecided voters (stop and think for a second about what it means to be undecided right now) to think that his tax plan isn’t a complete fraud and to think that all of us self-appointed defenders-of-math are just Obama hacks. And this latest cap on deductions is probably enough to clear that much lower bar.

43.4 = 30.9?

By James Kwak

Adam Davidson wrote his latest New York Times Magazine column about how Barack Obama and Mitt Romney largely agree on economic questions. This is a classic example of how to mislead through deceptively selective citation.

Here’s the core assertion:

For someone who lived in the first 150 years or so of this country, it might be hard to see what’s so different about the economic policies of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Romney seeks a 25 percent top corporate tax rate, and Obama is proposing 28 percent. Romney wants to eliminate capital-gains taxes for the typical investor and leave the rate at 15 percent for higher earners. Obama wants to increase it to 20 percent. They differ on how to tax the highest incomes. But for most Americans, the distinctions might be mistaken for a rounding error. Both men strongly support expanding free trade and maintaining close to the same level of Social Security and welfare benefits.

As anyone who follows fiscal policy knows, the corporate tax rate is a sideshow. It’s the individual income tax and payroll taxes that bring in the big dollars, and it’s the individual income tax that has the real impact (or not) on inequality.

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Voters: Not So Stupid?

By James Kwak

In July, a New York Times article on Priorities USA Action mentioned a focus group in which participants refused to believe that any presidential candidate could be in favor of “ending Medicare as we know it” (replacing guaranteed coverage with vouchers that will pay for an unknown percentage of guaranteed coverage) and tax cuts for the rich. At the time, I called this no less than “the problem with American politics.” 

But perhaps the problem isn’t so bad. Here are some results from recent Times/Quinnipiac polls of swing states (click on the image for a bigger version):

 

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The Gift That Keeps on Giving

By James Kwak

By now most of you probably know about the video of Mitt Romney at a fund-raiser for rich people dissing 47 percent of Americans, including seniors, one of his core constituencies. (Many seniors don’t pay income tax because they don’t have enough income, since Social Security is not taxed except for high-income households. For more on the “47 percent,” see here.)

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No There There

By James Kwak

On the one hand, over in Romney headquarters, they can take heart from the fact that the economy continues to sputter, as evidenced by the latest jobs report. On the other hand, as the election draws near, people will only ask more questions about what President Romney would actually do. For months now, the campaign has whispered one thing to the base (e.g., “severely conservative”) while being purposefully vague to everyone else, hoping that independents will assume he is still the moderate who introduced universal health care to Massachusetts. Now that strategy is breaking down.

Exhibit A is yesterday’s comical back-and-forth-and-forth-and-back on the Affordable Care Act. But the more important Exhibit B is the Romney “tax plan”—you know, the one that cuts rates for everyone by 20 percent, yet does not reduce revenues, does not increase taxes on the middle class, and achieves this miracle by eliminating tax expenditures, but without touching the preferences for investment income or the mortgage interest tax deduction.

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Small Government or Smallish-Sort-of-Mediumish-Nicer-Better Government

By James Kwak

The conventional wisdom about Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as his running mate is that it sets the stage for a debate about the role of government in society, between Romney and Ryan as champions of small government and Obama and Biden as supporters of big government. Indeed, that’s the thrust of the lead story in the Wall Street Journal this morning. And it’s pretty clear why Mitt Romney wants to have this debate.

First, the politics: The choice of Ryan should be slightly encouraging to Democrats for one reason—it confirms what the polls and Nate Silver have been saying for months: President Obama is winning, though not by much. One of Romney’s options was to simply run against the incumbent, pointing to the bad economy and making a bland case for himself as some kind of business guru. Apparently that wasn’t working, so he decided to double down on the Tea Party and the idea of radically reforming government—something that he’s been distinctly bad at throughout the election so far.

In the longer term, Democrats should be worried, because Romney and Ryan have the better debating position. Their position is simple and superficially compelling: Government is bad. (Cf. the DMV—it’s state, not federal, and the one in Massachusetts works very well, but whatever; BATF; EPA; IRS; whatever agency your audience happens to dislike. Compare to Apple as if all private sector businesses were like Apple.) Government infringes on individual liberty. Cut down the government and we will have (a) more liberty, (b) more economic growth, and (c) lower taxes.

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When Did The Economist Become Comically Stupid?

By James Kwak

I recently got around to looking at my latest issue of The Economist.  Here’s the cover:

If you can’t make it out, that’s a huge Barack Obama, a small Mitt Romney, and the following caption: “Big government or small? America’s great debate.”

Now, how you could draw a contrast between two men who passed structurally identical health care plans—in which government regulation is used to incent people to buy insurance from private companies—baffled me. The caption, if anything, should have been “Small government or tiny?” So I peeked inside, where things get worse.

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The One-Sided Deficit Debate

By James Kwak

Michael Hiltzik (hat tip Mark Thoma) wrote a column lamenting the domination of the government deficit debate by the wealthy. He clearly has a point. The fact that Simpson-Bowles—which uses its mandate of deficit reduction to call for . . . lower tax rates?—has become widely perceived as a centrist starting-point for discussion is clear evidence of how far to the right the inside-the-Beltway discourse has shifted, both over time and relative to the preferences of the population as a whole.

What’s more, the “consensus” of the self-styled “centrists” is what now makes the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 seem positively reasonable. With Simpson-Bowles and Domenici-Rivlin both calling for tax rates below those established in 2001, George W. Bush now looks like a moderate; even many Democrats now endorse the Bush tax cuts for families making up to $250,000 per year, which is still a lot of money (for most people, at least).

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The Problem with American Politics

By James Kwak

Or, How the Republicans Get Away with It:

“When Priorities informed a focus group that Romney supported the Ryan budget plan — and thus championed ‘ending Medicare as we know it’ — while also advocating tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, the respondents simply refused to believe any politician would do such a thing.”

From Robert Draper’s article on Priorities USA Action.

The ObamaCare Tax on the Middle Class

By James Kwak

So the new Republican argument (which Mitt Romney was against before he was in favor of it) is that the individual mandate is an oppressive tax on the middle class. Cute, isn’t it, adopting John Roberts’s argument?

First of all, there’s the little matter that the word “tax” in legal doctrine means something different from the word “tax” in ordinary English. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Plenty of words have precise legal meanings that would be foreign to ordinary English speakers, like “negligent,” “reckless,” “material,” and so on, and billions of dollars turn on those precise legal meanings. But that’s not going to sway many people, so let’s go to the numbers.

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Pure Spite

By James Kwak

In my Atlantic column on Thursday, I wrote the following about the Roberts Court’s decision to allow states to opt out of Medicaid expansion without losing their existing Medicaid funding:

“What we are going to see is Republican-controlled state governments refusing to expand Medicaid out of bitter hatred toward President Obama and spite for the working poor who need access to health care.”

For those who aren’t up to speed, the deal is basically this. Medicaid is administered by states (which often outsource it to third parties), but the federal government sets certain minimum coverage requirements that states must meet in order to receive federal funding. Those requirements are pretty low, states can choose not to cover able-bodied adults without children, regardless of their income. The Affordable Care Act required states to dramatically increase their Medicaid coverage, with the federal government kicking in 90 percent of the additional funding required (100 percent in the early years).

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The “Me, Too” Party

By James Kwak

In the current issue of Democracy, Elbert Ventura discusses the history of a problem that I’ve brought up as well: the transformation of the Democratic Party into the party of tax cuts. Except, that with the Republican Party as the real party of Texas-sized tax cuts, the Democrats can never be more than the kid brother, half-hearted, talking-out-of-both-sides-of-its-mouth party of tax cuts.

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