The Magic Asterisk

THE MAGIC ASTERISK….Brad DeLong is pleased that Roger Altman will be putting together John Kerry’s budget priorities document:

Roger Altman is very good people: highly competent, steeped in the issues, allergic to the magic asterisk. Moreover, he has the right values–fear of an inefficient and incentive-incompatible tax system, attachment to fiscal prudence as a way of accelerating economic growth, and an understanding of the good that well-designed government spending can do.

Can I be inexcusably cynical for a moment? Thanks.

I (and Brad) live in a state which last October was facing a $10 billion budget hole. We responded by electing a governor who promised to “stop the crazy deficit spending.” As soon as he took office he increased the deficit by $4 billion by cutting vehicle license fees. Then in December he proposed to finance this tax cut by issuing an extra $4 billion* in bonds. Yesterday my fellow citizens eagerly approved this bond issue by a wide margin. At the same time they made it clear in no uncertain terms that they will not put up with any tax increases whatsoever as a means of addressing the deficit.

My point? What makes us think that the people of America are interested in someone who is competent, steeped in the issues, and allergic to the magic asterisk? As near as I can tell, they are far more likely to vote for people who (a) lie to them, (b) cut their taxes, and (c) pretend that a magic asterisk really will make the deficits caused by their tax cuts go away. The American public is practically addicted to the magic asterisk.

I have a nasty suspicion that Roger Altman’s budget document will not inspire very many people to vote for John Kerry.

UPDATE: John Quiggin is thinking along the same lines, and he’s about as cynical as me even though he doesn’t quite admit it. For what it’s worth, I vote for option 2, although I admit that Paul Krugman’s relentless exposure of George Bush’s bogus budget numbers makes it more difficult than usual. Still, anyone with a little style can pull it off. And it’s such a golden oldie that it hardly even counts as a lie anymore. Plus John’s description of it is both unusually amusing and absolutely dead accurate.

*Last year the California legislature approved approximately $10 billion in bonds that are in danger of being overturned in court. Arnold’s bond measure doesn’t just replace the legislature’s bonds, it approves an extra $5 billion. This additional borrowing will mostly go toward financing the tax cut.