Bring Out the Hand Puppets

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

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.