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Why Republicans Need Remedial Math: Their Budget Plans Explode the Deficit

16 March 2012

Summary:  Mike Lofgren provides more analysis of the Republican Party’s obsessions with reducing taxes on the rich and massive military spending — paid for by massive sustained borrowing.  The last period of balanced budget (at least on a cash accounting basis) under President Clinton fades into history, as the GOP leads us towards the post-Constitutional era.  We can only guess at what that holds for us.  Hope may beyond reach for a nation where such a large fraction of people believe Obama to be a non-US Muslim (or atheist) extreme leftist (or anarchist, or communist).

Why Republicans Need Remedial Math:
Their Budget Plans Explode the Deficit

by Mike Lofgren, originally published at Truthout, 13 March 2012, republished here with the author’s generous permission.

It is an irony of our current national malaise that Republican politicians consider themselves, and tend to be uncritically regarded by the media, as “strong” on issues like national security and fiscal responsibility. But reality is otherwise; on closer examination, their strength on national security boils down to knee -jerk belligerence and profligate spending combined with invincible ignorance of the intractable complexity of the world. One sometimes wonders, on hearing the latest fusillade from a Republican politician about which country we should bomb or invade, if he or she could accurately identify those countries on an unlabeled world map.

This ignorance extends to fiscal policy and the issues of deficit and debt – those supposedly cardinal strengths that Republicans will try to exploit in order to capture the White House and the Senate; that is, when they are not too busy making fools of themselves over culture wars issues. It is a pity the media concentrate so much on the salacious details of what Rush Limbaugh said about President Obama’s policy on insurance coverage for birth control pills, and on Republicans’ reactions to the outbursts of a radio entertainer. One would hope the media might give sustained attention to the GOP presidential candidates’ budget plans. They would find their proposals riddled with such fantastic assumptions that no neutral observer could come away with any reaction other than that Republicans are so math challenged that they could not manage a lemonade stand, let alone the finances of a nation of 310 million people whose government spends $3.5 trillion a year.

Let us take as an analytical starting point the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office’s Budget (CBO) and Economic Outlook: Fiscal Years 2012 to 2022, published in January 2012. Over the next ten years, the CBO projects a baseline deficit that totals $3.1 trillion. To simplify, “baseline” in CBO’s parlance means a mechanical projection of today’s trends if no laws were changed. In other words, if for the next decade the president signed no bills affecting revenues or entitlements, and discretionary spending bills were enacted according to present trends, we would still add $3.1 trillion to our current gross federal debt of $15 trillion.

There are obvious flaws in such a straight-line projection. Because the CBO assumes a continuation of current law, it flouts the fact that some policies are certainly going to change. For instance, its projection posits that the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts will expire on schedule (the 2001 cuts have already been extended once), that the alternative minimum tax (AMT) will not receive its usual one-year legislative fix to avoid hitting middle-class taxpayers and that Medicare reimbursements to doctors will be cut according to schedule. But both Republicans and Democrats support preventing the AMT hit to taxpayers and stopping the Medicare reimbursement cuts. And Republicans unanimously support extending all the Bush tax cuts, while Democrats support their extension to everyone who isn’t a millionaire. So, the politicians we elect will almost certainly add to the CBO’s projected baseline deficit by a substantial amount.

That is why President Obama seems like such a mediocre fiscal manager. Last year, the CBO analyzed his budget proposal and concluded it would add $2.7 trillion to its baseline deficit projection over ten years (CBO’s projection for this year’s budget has not yet been published; one expects the fiscal gap between CBO’s baseline projection and Obama’s new budget proposal to be of a similar size as last year’s). His apparent extravagance is because the bulk of his suggested measures that would expand the deficit over the next ten years are precisely those proposals, like extension of most of the Bush tax cuts, the AMT repeal and no reduction in Medicare reimbursements, all of which garner bipartisan support. That fact is what makes Republican tantrums over Obama’s fiscal policies so psychologically interesting: the Kenyan Muslim socialist usurper has largely proposed what they themselves advocate. But it gets worse when GOP candidates lay their own plans on the table.

CBO shows what caused the deficits

The Republican hopefuls who want to relieve Obama of his job would not simply add two or three trillion dollars of deficits over the next decade, as the president has proposed to do. Mitt Romney, who touts his business acumen as a prime qualification to be president, makes Obama appear as tight –fisted as Grover Cleveland by comparison. Romney’s initial tax plan was as follows: those making more than $1 million a year would receive an average federal income tax cut of $145,000 by 2015. This scheme would increase deficits by about $180 billion annually by 2015, according to the Tax Policy Center. But apparently that was not enough to satisfy his contributors, so at the end of February 2012, Romney added a 20 percent cut in all income tax rates and a repeal of the AMT. The Center estimated that the 20 percent rate cut would add an additional $150 billion to the deficit in 2015 alone. The policy group did not calculate a ten-year estimate, but it is safe to say that Romney’s new and improved boondoggle would add about $3 trillion over ten years on top of Obama’s pre-existing plan to increase the deficit by $2.7 trillion.

But as the old Veg-O-Matic ads would say, “Wait! — there’s more!” In order to pander to the militarism in the GOP base (and potential contributors in the military-industrial complex), Romney advocates increasing military spending to 4% of gross domestic product (GDP). Over the next decade, that would add another $2.6 trillion to the deficit.

To summarize: Romney would accept most of Obama’s additions to the deficit (say, $2 trillion), add $3.0 trillion in additional tax cuts, and then top it off with $2.6 trillion of increased military spending. Therefore, he would add well over $7 trillion to a ten-year future baseline deficit that is already $3.1 trillion. So, how would Romney cut over $10 trillion (about two-thirds of our annual GDP) to achieve his campaign’s goal of a balanced budget within the next decade?

Here Romney turns to the deep and abiding religious faith of GOP voters — in this case, not their faith in the Rapture, but their faith that tax cuts not only “pay for themselves,” but somehow increase revenue. Thirty years of empirical testing have demonstrated that thesis to be false: if you cut taxes, you cut tax revenue. Nevertheless, Romney’s plan implies his tax cuts will spur economic growth and increase revenue in some mysterious manner and by some unspecified but gargantuan amount. He will also cut government spending, but most of his proposals, such as “enacting long-term Social Security and Medicare reform,” and “capping Federal spending at 20% of GDP,” are more rhetorical fluff than detailed plans and are, hence, unscorable. Therefore, Romney’s budget would increase deficits and debts rather than reduce them.

Rick Santorum, the other GOP candidate who has a fighting chance at getting nominated, has made his political chops harping about more supernatural concerns than the humdrum business of public finance. Nevertheless, his tax plan would sharply lower income taxes and rates on capital gains and dividends, cut corporate income taxes in half and eliminate the inheritance tax which falls overwhelmingly on the rich. According to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, Santorum’s tax cuts would add $6 trillion to the deficit over the next ten years. The $2.3 trillion in spending cuts that he does specify would still leave him far short of making up for the revenue loss his tax cuts would cause. As for his supplementary claim that he would balance the budget in five years by cutting an additional $5 trillion in spending, the Committee considers this proposal unscorable, since it is nothing more than an assertion without a plan. Since the entire sum of domestic discretionary spending (including law enforcement, homeland security, food and drug safety and air traffic control) over the next 8 years totals only $2.9 trillion, he could abolish all domestic government activity and still not balance the budget.

This is deeply unserious stuff that Republican candidates for the highest office in the land are advocating at the same time they are wailing about deficits, but the public hears next to nothing about it. Such dangerously unserious policy results from an ideology confected of a blind faith in budgetary unicorns along with a cynical disregard for the intelligence of the voter. The Republican candidates are also making a calculated — and probably safe — bet that the news media will not call them on it.

About the author

Mike Lofgren retired on June 17 after 28 years as a Congressional staffer. He served 16 years as a professional staff member on the Republican side of both the House and Senate Budget Committees.

Other articles by Mike Lofgren

  1. Goodbye to All That: Reflections of a GOP Operative Who Left the Cult,”, Truthout, 3 September 2011
  2. ‘I Know How to Beat Republicans’: Interview With Former GOP Staffer Mike Lofgren“, Truthout, 5 December 2011
  3. Have the Super-Rich Seceded From the United States?“, Truthout, 10 January 2012
  4. Iran: War Drums Beating, 7 February 2012
  5. The key to modern American politics:  the Right-Wing Id Unzipped, 15 February 2012

For More Infomation about conservatives and the Republican Party

  1. President Bush gets in a few last blows on America before he leaves, 13 January 2009
  2. Republicans have found a sure-fire path to victory in the November elections, 5 February 2010
  3. Whose values do Dick and Liz Cheney share? Those of America? Or those of our enemies, in the past and today?, 14 March 2010
  4. The evolution of the Republican Party has shaped America during the past fifty years, 8 May 2010
  5. Two contrasting views of the Republican Party, 23 May 2010
  6. Will people on the right help cut Federal spending?, 19 June 2010
  7. Conservatives oppose the new START treaty, as they opposed even the earlier version negotiated by Ronald Reagan, 24 July 2010
  8. The Republicans are serious about the budget. The results could be ugly., 24 November 2010
  9. Why do Rep Ryan and the Republicans want to gut America’s military defenses?, 14 April 2011
  10. Why Conservatives are winning: they use the WMD of political debate, 28 April 2011
  11. Mitt Romney and the Empire of Hubris.  Setting America on a path to decline., 10 October 2011
  12. A modern conservative dresses up Mr. Potter to suit our libertarian fashions, 17 November 2011
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10 Comments leave one →
  1. Bluestocking permalink
    16 March 2012 2:01 am

    It is an irony of our current national malaise that Republican politicians consider themselves, and tend to be uncritically regarded by the media, as “strong” on issues like national security and fiscal responsibility.

    I strongly suspect that the primary reason for this is the fact that the media has become controlled by corporate interests and consolidated to such an extent that it’s thought at least 90% of everything we see and hear and read is controlled by a mere handful of billion-dollar companies — many of whom tend to favor the Republican Party because the Republican agenda tends to be very favorable to corporate interests (tax cuts, deregulation, etc.)

    As long as the Republican Party panders to corporate interests, the media hacks will continue to downplay and overlook the fact that many Republicans have a double standard and frequently do not practice what they preach — or when they do practice what they preach, tend to go overboard and act unilaterally without much (or possibly any) thought for the probable consequences.

  2. 16 March 2012 7:31 pm

    Saying that they need “remedial” math implies that they are ignorant. That’s clearly not the case – they know exactly what they are doing; they hope that the electorate needs remedial math and won’t catch on.

    Budget shenanigans like this are one of the best weapons against these faux-conservatives because it localizes them with concrete facts. It is a fact that these proposals are constructed so as to disproportionately favor the wealthy, while making the problem worse. There’s no way a candidate can say “oh, oops! I didn’t think of that!” because they’re caught with their hand in the cookie jar up to the elbow.

  3. 16 March 2012 11:00 pm

    The current GOP fetishism over the budget and lack of arithmetic skills seems like one of the interlocking pieces of their current faux-ideology. Other pieces being the utter lack of knowledge of American history (Palin’s false retelling of Paul Revere’s ride, Bachmann not knowing what state the battles of Lexington and Concord were fought in, or Paul lying about the true causes of the Civil War. As well as the whole “Christian Nation” rhetoric overall.) Other aspects of the faux-ideology include horrible ideas on foreign policy, outside of Jon Huntsman who clearly favors the realist paradigm. Or lack of understanding international trade, as they slavishly seem to think FTAs are an elixir of growth, yet they never mention David Ricardo.

  4. 17 March 2012 12:10 am

    We in the United Kingdom have our full share of economic ignorance within our political class, and especially its leaders. But what the US Republican wannabe presidential candidates seem to have in greater abundance is an overlay of cynicism which far exceeds anything we have here. Your Repubican candidates couldn’t care less about the US deficit – they only pretend to care. Thus knowledge of math has nothing to do with it. I’m not even sure they are actually even true believers in small government. They are simply dancing to the tune of their big business backers, whose agenda is short-term self interest – not ‘enlightened self interest’ (after all, how long can even a well-gated community survive if the society within which it resides falls apart?)

    • Bluestocking permalink
      18 March 2012 6:02 am

      How long can even a well-gated community survive if the society within which it resides falls apart? — DMO

      Unfortunately, the answer is probably “quite a bit longer than you think”, especially considering the nature of armaments that their buddies in the government — both federal (in the form of the military) and state (in the form of the police) — have at their disposal. It’s kind of hard to batter a gate down when you can’t see (because of dazzlers or tear gas), can’t hear (because of long-range acoustic devices AKA sound cannons), and can’t move forward (because the Active Denial System aimed at you is making your skin feel like it’s about to burn). While people might like to think that the police and the courts serve the people and uphold the law, it would probably be more accurate to say that they serve the interests of the dominant group in the society (AKA the 1%) and uphold the status quo.

      I’ve been saying for quite a while now that despite all the vainglorious posturing from the NRA, the Second Amendment almost might as well not exist anymore because even though ordinary Americans (AKA the 99%) outnumber the 1% — or at least the 5%, which would include most of our elected officials — the fact remains that we are massively outgunned. We’re also divided and disorganized — a situation which the 1% appears to be aware of and may even be deliberately attempting to maintain (or at least exploit as long as possible) because they know that divided and disorganized people do not pose a serious threat. If and when ordinary Americans show that they’re willing to put aside their ideological differences and join forces in the teeth of all the divisive rhetoric, that’s unfortunately the moment when the vast majority of people will finally wake up and realize that someone managed to slip metaphorical choke collars around their necks when they weren’t paying attention — because that’s probably when they’ll get a swift “correction” from the people holding the leashes attached to those collars. They haven’t seen much need to do it so far…but if push comes to shove and it comes down to a question of Us vs. Them, there’s no doubt in my mind that they will quite literally stop at nothing to keep us in what they see as our “rightful place” (they certainly have the firepower to do it).

      As much as I hate to say it, all they probably need to do in order to discourage dissent is invoke the NDAA or similar legislation, toss a bunch of people in the pokey for an indefinite period, and perhaps summarily shoot (or at least seriously more) a few others in the streets. It’s happened many times before in other countries…there’s no particular reason to believe that it can’t happen here, especially now. In fact, the chances that it not only can but will happen here seem to be growing by the day. The Founding Fathers certainly knew it could happen here if people didn’t pay enough attention…that’s part of the reason why they formed the Constitution as they did. Unfortunately, Americans have become so ignorant and complacent and apathetic that conditions would probably have to be extremely desperate for them to be willing to risk losing life and limb in the face of the kind of force which would almost certainly be implemented in the event of widespread civil unrest. At this point, if this country ever comes to the point when the people are compelled to take up arms against their own government — either defensively or offensively — it seems to me that the only real hope that the American people have of avoiding a massive body count among the civilian population is that a significant percentage of American service people (many of whom come from the lower tiers of our society themselves) will desert or disaffect rather than open fire on their own people.

    • 23 March 2012 2:52 pm

      Yes – that is very interesting, and I kind of agree with you. But then you would be describing a Fascist-Corporate state, which I suppose the USA could become. I even saw hints of it here in the UK at the time of Thatcher’s second election – but it fairly rapidly faded, thank goodness. But I believe that not all of the top 0.01%, and certainly not the top 1% are actually evil, and further, most among them would find such a state a pretty threatening place. They may wish to avoid it happening. I can only hope so.

    • 23 March 2012 3:47 pm

      “I believe that not all of the top 0.01%, and certainly not the top 1% are actually evil,”

      That’s a false dilemma. Most human ills result from ignorance, fear, greed, and tribal loyalties (eg, to family, clan, ethnicity, religion). Evil is a wonderful term for propaganda and teaching children. It’s useless for analytical purposes.

    • 23 March 2012 11:36 pm

      Yes, I guess I can’t disagree with you. ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’ are irrelevant to the dynamics of fear and greed, which bolster each other and make people immune even to the longer term appeal of ‘enlightened’ self-interest. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” (Upton Sinclair)

  5. saxon permalink
    14 April 2012 5:38 am

    The laugh is that Mike is in reality so far right as to make Pat Buchanan look like a lib. I know it for a fact. One thing is for sure, he loves to use inanely florid language, such as “invincible ignorance of the intractable complexity of the world” whatever the hell that means.

    • 16 April 2012 3:28 am

      Saxon,

      Thank you! That’s an important observation, going to the heart of our situation. The distinction between liberal and conservative no longer correspondes to the large questions of our time.

      That’s obvious from the similarities between the major domestic and foreign policies of the Bush Jr and Obama administrations. The bipartisan majorities that pass most major legislation. The bipartisan nature of major policy initiatives, such as Obamacare’s origins in the work of conservative think-tanks and as the Republican Presidential candidate’s sole major policy initiative in his one term of office.

      Our questions concern the nature of citizenship and preservation of our basic liberties. Neither of those are issues of the left or right.

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