I recently wrote, and this was before Charlottesville, that the speed with which President Trump was eroding basic norms of governing and public discourse was alarming. The most troubling part of this to me is the lying, which brings me to today’s rant.
What’s worse, lying about the size of your inaugural crowd or the growth effects of tax cuts? Lying about who had permits in Charlottesville or the condition of the Affordable Care Act? Lying about your poll numbers or your role as a job creator?
In terms of norm erosion, the first example in each of the above is worse. I mean, we could all see the picture of the inaugural crowds, so there’s a truly unhinged quality to such lies. And the second examples in each of the cases are grayer. Tax cuts can boost growth, especially in the short term in periods of economic weakness (but to do so, they must be targeted at income-constrained households, not the wealthy). The ACA, while covering millions and helping to reduce cost growth, does need improvements.
Moreover, these old, phony claims long predate Trump. Still, when Trump equates Nazis, racists, and anti-Semites with their opposition (“very fine people on both sides”), I worry that the phony claims about jobs and taxes come off as relatively benign. The old phony gets swamped by the new phony.
Granted, some of the new phony is much more immediately dangerous to people’s safety. But the old phony is dangerous too, as it threatens to generate lasting, negative impacts on the living standards of moderate- and low-income people, while confirming conservatives’ self-fulfilling prophecy that government is a feckless waste.
So, here’s a brief primer, with links to evidence, of the BS you’ll be hearing more of in the coming weeks in current policy debates.
Tax cuts are not tax reform: Team Trump and congressional Republicans talk a lot about “reforming” the tax code, which in D.C. has come to mean paying for lower tax rates by broadening the tax base. However, what I fear we’re looking at here is not tax reform, but tax cuts, mostly for the wealthy. Yes, Republicans have suggested closing some loopholes to offset the costs of their cuts, for which I give them credit. But they’ve already shown that they’ll toss the payfors, though not the cuts, once the lobbyists start closing in.
Tax cuts and growth: There’s no historical record and no correlations or causal evidence in the data that tax cuts reliably, significantly and lastingly raise the growth rate or level of GDP. Here’s a tweetstorm to that effect, and here’s a useful, balanced and pretty readable review of the evidence.
Revenue neutrality is an inadequate goal of tax reform: Based on our aging demographics, climate change, geopolitics, inequality, natural disasters and our infrastructure needs, we’re going to need more, not less, and not the same amount, of revenue in the future. So even revenue neutrality is too low a bar. And now we’re starting to hear about “deficit neutrality,” which is a much lower bar. It implies losing revenue but offsetting part of the costs of the tax cuts by cutting spending, which makes the cuts even more regressive.
The ACA is not “collapsing under its own weight”: Not even close. It continues to cover millions who previously lacked affordable coverage, while helping to drive down costs. Its biggest problems have been (a) the states that did not take the Medicaid expansion, and (b) the difficulty insurers have had calibrating prices in the individual market (the exchanges). “B” is totally fixable and is improving on its own. But it will take congressional efforts to bear some of the risk faced by insurers in these markets, as was foreseen by the ACA’s architecture. “A” may improve as states recognize that the ACA is here to stay and when/if their politics shift.
Raising the debt ceiling is needed to pay for current, not future spending: You’ll soon be hearing arguments from hard-right conservatives that they can’t support increasing the debt ceiling because it will encourage more government spending. But the reason the government needs to borrow beyond the currently allowable ceiling is to pay for spending Congress has already appropriated. They’ve eaten the meal, and now they’re saying they don’t want to pay for it, because to do so would simply encourage eating future meals. I’m ready to argue all day about future spending needs, as I pointed out above re the inadequacy of revenue neutrality. But there’s no argument to be had about paying the bills on spending on which you’ve already signed off.
Our anti-poverty programs work, so cutting them will hurt people: This is in reference to a canard I associate with Paul Ryan, who constantly argues that our poverty programs fail to lower the share of the poor. In fact, measures which account for the impact of anti-poverty policies — programs that have increased over the years but are wrongly omitted from the official poverty measure — show that these programs reduced poverty by almost half in 2015 and have lowered the share of the poor by 10 percentage points since the late 1960s.
Trump inherited a strong job market: Glenn Kessler presents the numbers and evidence here, though why he scores this as a 2 versus a 4 Pinocchio falsehood is beyond me (I’d at least give Trump 4 Papagenos).
These phony arguments have been pitched for much longer than the norm-crushing lies of the Trump regime. But they too erode our politics and our policies. In fact, by creating and elevating the falsehood that government exists solely to redistribute wealth to the already wealthy, they’ve led to a dystopic, cynical, nonrepresentative politics that helped paved the way for Trump.