One of the chief policy mysteries of Donald Trump’s campaign platform is how he intends to achieve the arithmetically impossible: reduce taxes by trillions of dollars; shield Social Security and Medicare benefits from any cuts; “rebuild” the military and infrastructure; and — depending on what day Trump is talking — start to pay off the national debt, if not eliminate it by the end of his second term.
Perhaps, I thought, Sam Clovis, Trump’s national co-chair and chief policy adviser, could explain. Clovis, an economics professor at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, was the Trump campaign’s emissary to a summit on fiscal responsibility Wednesday sponsored by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation.
To say the session was unedifying fails to convey its incoherence. It was alarming. “I understand less about Trump’s budget plan after listening to Clovis than I did before,” tweeted David Wessel of the Brookings Institution.
Indeed. Interviewed by CNBC’s John Harwood, Clovis started by misstating the cost of Trump’s tax plan and proceeded downhill from there.
Harwood noted that the Tax Foundation, a group that Clovis himself described as “highly credible organization,” had estimated the price tag of the Trump tax plan at $10 trillion over 10 years — even under what is known as dynamic scoring, giving the plan credit for spurring economic growth.
Clovis: “That’s not entirely true, because the Tax Foundation model is a static model, it’s not a dynamic model.”
Harwood: “They do it both ways, but I believe that their $10 trillion figure that they came up with was in their dynamic model.”
Clovis: “Well, that’s what they told me, and I sat across the table from them just like this, John.”
Advantage, Harwood. The Tax Foundation puts the “dynamic” cost of the Trump plan at $10.1 trillion. The “static” score is $11.9 trillion. No biggie. A trillion here, a trillion there.
Clovis’s fiscal insouciance was breathtaking. “Our proposals, what we think will happen, will lead us in fact to about a $4.5 to $7 trillion surplus at the end of 10 years, if all of our initiatives are put in place,” he said.
Pause for a moment to appreciate the audacity of this claim. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that deficits will total another $9.4 trillion during this period. So Trump is purporting to pay for his $10 trillion tax cut, plus eliminate that additional deficit, plus amass a surplus amounting to several trillion more? Outlandish is too kind a word for this.
How outlandish? Former Congressional Budget Office director Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the conservative American Action Forum, estimated it would require a mere 10 percent annual growth for the decade.
And then there was Clovis’s puzzling answer to Harwood’s questions about whether Trump — who has vowed not to cut entitlement benefits — might be willing to back away from that pledge once in office.
Actually, Clovis said, once the Trump-generated economic growth has taken off, “we’ll take hard look at those to start seeing what we can do in a bipartisan way.”
Still, Clovis said, “Right now, we’re not going to touch anything because we can’t predict the growth. If we don’t have that growth, then I think that whoever [is] the next president is going to have a horrible time in dealing with this, because those entitlements will race to the front of all the economic issues we have in this country.”
If Trump is open to entitlement reform, that’s good news, from my point of view. But who can tell what Trump position is real and what is illusory, what can be relied on only for the fleeting moment and what constitutes a matter of deep conviction?