In the next several debates, we are going to be faced with claims and counter-claims about budget and tax numbers. Neither you nor I will be able to ascertain their accuracy. But I can assure you that accuracy matters little in such political exchanges because the numbers will generate much more heat than light, and miss the point.
The light is that the “math” is simple, although the “numbers guys,” Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, say that the math is complex and sometimes make it appear so. They want talk about math to mystify in order to obscure, avoid, or deny the consequences of the math. For what the math is about—and the debates are likely to forget what it is about—are not the numbers, but about the policies the costs of which are added to, retained in, or subtracted from, the budget, and the consequences of adding, retaining, or subtracting. Anyone who does a family budget knows what it means to consider adding a dog to the family or taking a vacation or going to summer school.
In the first debate, Romney said that everyone's share of lower taxes will remain the same, and so it may. However, that saying does not mean that an aggregate of an across-the-board 20-percent personal income tax cut would not reduce federal revenues by $5 trillion over 10 years. If those lost revenues do not equal spending cuts, any difference would be added to the national debt. Moreover, an increase in defense spending would require additional spending cuts to offset it. In an aggregate 10-year budget of today’s $3.8 trillion budget, or $38 trillion, the total reduction in spending would be enormous, about 15 percent. Cutting PBS and Planned Parenthood may make minuscule reductions, but cutting only large programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, or government departments and agencies can make large enough reductions to achieve budget neutrality. Even greater cuts would be required to reduce the budget deficit.
Romney and Ryan believe that tax cuts, both individual and corporate, will increase business profits, increase tax revenues, make up any difference, and further reduce the budget deficits. This theory was the basis of the Reagan and Bush tax cuts, and, in each case, the economy went into recessions. Reagan reversed his recession with tax increases; Bush did not reverse his recession, Republicans have refused tax increases, and the recession lingers. Such evidence cannot persuade economic ideologues like Romney and Ryan—imagine: Romney touts his business experience, but lets his ideology trump any economic knowledge which he may, but seems not to, have—but it should persuade anyone with an appreciation for the soundness of economic theory and the facts of economic history.
What no one talks about are the additional costs of such cuts. Suppose we get rid of those much-reviled-as-job-killing environmental regulations like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and consider the consequences. The end of their regulatory costs imposed on business might lead to more business opportunities, lower business costs, and greater profits. Eliminating these regulations might also enable companies to create more jobs. But they might also cost jobs in businesses which provided environmental goods and services. The net balance of jobs gained and lost requires a great deal of data and analysis; eliminating some regulations may actually kill more jobs than it creates.
Either way, eliminating the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts would have important consequences. We have lived with these regulations for so long that we have forgotten why government enacted them in the first place—to protect lives, improve health, and preserve the quality of the air, water, and land. If Romney and Ryan eliminated them, we would have dramatic increases in death, debility, and disease. We would witness more bacterial and chemical diseases and disorders among people, especially children and seniors, and animals, including farm animals, and more birth defects. The number of lives lost or impaired, and the costs of prevention or treatment for lives otherwise lost or impaired, would increase greatly.
Any assessment of any regulation must consider not only its costs, but also its benefits. Romney and Ryan, on their own and at the behest of business interests, emphasize shrinking or eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency and regulations like the Clean Air and Clear Water Acts. The question is what trade-offs the electorate wishes to make. Does it want increased business profits or more jobs, not to mention “energy independence,” so badly that it wants to put everyone's life, health, and happiness at risk?
From this perspective, though the numbers are large, the math is fairly simple—it is all addition and subtraction—but the policy issues and their consequences are not simple. So my advice is: do not worry about the math, especially if you are not good at it; keep your eye on the effects of math-driven policies on your life and on the lives of those around you; imagine the effects of dangerous germs and harmful chemicals in the lungs and stomachs of loved ones; and keep asking questions.