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The Republican War on ... Arithmetic

This post originally appeared at the Political Animal. Paul Krugman's column today does a nice job explaining that one of the nation's "great political parties" seems to have launched a "war on arithmetic."
Howard Gleckman of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center has done the math. As he points out, the only way to balance the budget by 2020, while simultaneously (a) making the Bush tax cuts permanent and (b) protecting all the programs Republicans say they won't cut, is to completely abolish the rest of the federal government: "No more national parks, no more Small Business Administration loans, no more export subsidies, no more N.I.H. No more Medicaid (one-third of its budget pays for long-term care for our parents and others with disabilities). No more child health or child nutrition programs. No more highway construction. No more homeland security. Oh, and no more Congress." The "pledge," then, is nonsense. But isn't that true of all political platforms? The answer is, not to anything like the same extent. Many independent analysts believe that the Obama administration's long-run budget projections are somewhat too optimistic -- but, if so, it's a matter of technical details. Neither President Obama nor any other leading Democrat, as far as I can recall, has ever claimed that up is down, that you can sharply reduce revenue, protect all the programs voters like, and still balance the budget. And the G.O.P. itself used to make more sense than it does now. Ronald Reagan's claim that cutting taxes would actually increase revenue was wishful thinking, but at least he had some kind of theory behind his proposals. When former President George W. Bush campaigned for big tax cuts in 2000, he claimed that these cuts were affordable given (unrealistic) projections of future budget surpluses. Now, however, Republicans aren't even pretending that their numbers add up.
This is probably definitely an obscure reference, but there was an episode of "The Simpsons" many years ago in which the family visits "Itchy and Scratchy Land." A giant robot Itchy greets the Simpsons, takes off the top of its head as if it were a hat, exposing circuitry, chips, wires, etc. Marge turns to Homer and say, "See all that stuff in there, Homer? That's why your robot never worked." You see, in Homer's mind, simply building something that looked like a giant robot should have been enough. Plop a tin bucket on a metal torso, give it a name, and the thing should just start working. It didn't occur to Homer that robots are very complex, and that the advanced technology that goes into the tin-bucket head actually makes a difference. In this little allegory, House Republicans are obviously Homer. They believe they have a policy agenda because they published a document they call a "policy agenda." Their tin-bucket head is empty, but they aren't quite sharp enough to realize that this matters. This isn't to say all Republicans have always been like this. Not surprisingly, I was never especially impressed with Reagan's supply-side agenda from 30 years ago, but credible economists had thought out a specific approach and could back up their ideas with data. The point, however, is that this new generation of GOP leaders just doesn't bother. They find pesky details like arithmetic to be annoying distractions. It leads to a desire to meet with the House Minority Leader and show him a real policy document. "See all that stuff in there, John? That's why your agenda never worked."