Budget facts are stubborn things

BUDGET FACTS ARE STUBBORN THINGS…. Many of you are no doubt familiar with the classic Monty Python sketch from 1972 called the “Argument Clinic,” which, as regular readers know, is one of my favorites. It goes like this: a man who enjoys a good, substantive debate goes to a business that ostensibly provides one, but after paying his fee, he quickly discovers that the man on the other side of the desk simply contradicts literally everything he says.

The customer, exasperated, eventually tries to explain, “An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.” His adversary replies ,”No, it isn’t.” He tries again, saying, “Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes.” After a short pause, the antagonist responds, “No, it isn’t.”

A little too often, the “Argument Clinic” sketch reminds me of efforts to engage conservative Republicans in any kind of discourse. Take the debate over the House budget plan, approved last week.

Reasonable observers note that the plan privatizes Medicare. “No, it doesn’t,” the right responds. Those relying on reality add that Medicare would be replaced with vouchers. “No, it wouldn’t,” conservative reply.

And the GOP budget plan slashes taxes for the wealthy. “No, it doesn’t,” the right responds. Take this recent Charles Krauthammer column, for example.

The final charge — cutting taxes for the rich — is the most scurrilous…. Ryan’s plan is classic tax reform — which even Obama says the country needs: It broadens the tax base by eliminating loopholes that, in turn, provide the revenue for reducing rates.

Now, there’s ample evidence that the House Republican budget plan actually cuts taxes to the tune of $2.9 trillion over the course of the next decade, benefiting the wealthy almost exclusively. Krauthammer and others effectively argue, “Don’t worry, it’s deficit neutral because for every dollar in tax cuts, the GOP closes a tax loophole.”

Which tax loopholes? Well, Republicans haven’t really said. Are there really $2.9 trillion in loopholes just waiting to be closed? They haven’t answered that one, either.

If we’re going to proceed with a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition, the fact that the GOP plan cuts taxes for the rich really isn’t in dispute.

Jon Chait had a lengthy item on this yesterday, which is well worth reading.

First, the argument simply reflects a legitimate difference in baselines…. When President Obama accuses Ryan of cutting taxes for the rich, he’s using the post-2012 baseline. I consider that the best point of reference because the most important force in our political system is inertia. Given our multiple veto points, it takes great effort to enact a policy change that the parties disagree upon. Ryan proposes to make that change. Therefore, I think it’s fair to describe him as “cutting taxes,” even if revenues did remain at present levels (which I dispute, but more on that later.) I do think there’s merit in both baselines. The argument that Obama is lying about Ryan — that calling him a tax-cutter is, in Krauthammer’s characteristically understated phrasing, “scurrilous” — rests upon the assumption that the current-policy baseline is not only more preferable but the only remotely honest point of reference. That seems like a huge stretch.

Second, even if we accept Ryan’s preferred baseline, his description of his plan is hard to accept at face value. Tax reform is a trade where you take away deductions (that’s hard) and use the money to reduce rates (that’s easy.) The rate reductions are specified. The reduced deductions aren’t. Another way to put this is that Ryan has proposed a specific tax cut that would benefit the affluent, accompanied by utterly vague promises to find offsets. At the very least, the rate-lowering portion ought to carry more weight than the deduction-closing portion.

Third, even if we accept both Ryan’s baseline and assume he will match every dollar in lost revenue from the rate cuts with another dollar in reduced deductions, he will almost certainly wind up cutting taxes for the rich relative even to the post-Bush tax code.

And this doesn’t even count the tax increases that would kick in if Republicans repealed the entirety of the Affordable Care Act, which is another part of the budget plan.

If Ryan and his allies want to argue that these tax cuts are a good idea anyway, we can have the debate. If they want to argue that the vast majority of Americans, who want taxes on the wealthy to go up, are wrong, we can argue about that, too.

But simply insisting that a massive package of tax cuts isn’t a massive package of tax cuts isn’t part of any intellectual process.