Barack Obama Is Not the “Ice Cream President”

There’s an email making the rounds that tells a story about two little girls who run for class president in grade school. One girl works hard, runs a good campaign, and promises to do her best if elected. The other girl promises to give everyone ice cream. The teacher asks the children how they’ll pay for the ice cream. They have no idea, but they vote for the ice cream girl anyway.

That, says the email, is how Barack Obama won the election. He promised to give away free stuff that we can’t afford.

Bill O’Reilly got the ball rolling on this theory when he said, “It’s not a traditional America anymore, and there are 50 percent of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama.”

Earlier that day, a Romney supporter told me that he expected his candidate to lose because Obama “bought” votes by “giving away” food stamps and welfare.

We have such short memories.

It was the Republican president George W. Bush who expanded eligibility for food stamps in the 2002 farm bill. It was 99 Republican representatives who voted to expand the program further in the 2008 farm bill. And it was that same Republican president who waived one of the work requirements for 32 states in November 2008.

That’s why the food stamp program added more recipients under Bush than it did under Obama.

The welfare claim is even more ridiculous. We may not remember the food stamp expansion under Bush, but surely we remember welfare reform under Bill Clinton. In 1996, Congress ended “welfare as we know it” and replaced it with “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families” (TANF), a program whose budget hasn’t changed in 16 years. It was $16.6 billion in 1996, and it’s $16.6 billion today.

In the year before welfare reform, 4.7 million Americans received assistance from the program. Today, only 2 million receive assistance from TANF.

When TANF was created, 68 percent of families with children in poverty received welfare. Today, only 27 percent get it.

Low-income entitlement spending has increased, but it would’ve increased under any president. Most of it is what economists call “automatic stabilizers” because they automatically increase during recessions. More people become unemployed. More people fall into poverty. More people lose their health insurance. So more people qualify for unemployment insurance and food stamps and Medicaid.

Since the end of the recession, low-income entitlement spending has been falling. In the next decade, the Congressional Budget Office says that it will return to the same level it’s been for the last forty years: a little more than 1 percent of our nation’s income. If you exclude health care, where costs are rising for completely separate reasons, the CBO expects low-income entitlement spending to fall below its forty-year average in coming years.

The CBO is making these projections, of course, based on the Obama administration’s budget. The president who is supposedly giving away free stuff, it turns out, is actually planning to reduce low-income entitlements.

What’s particularly galling about the Republicans’ argument is that Romney was the candidate who couldn’t explain how he’d pay for everything he was promising. Romney was the candidate who wanted to add a $480 billion tax cut to a $1.3 trillion deficit. Romney was the candidate who wanted to add $200 billion in new Pentagon spending every year.

It was the Republican president George W. Bush who turned a surplus into a deficit. It was Bush who took the nation into two wars while passing two massive tax cuts. It was Bush who signed Medicare Part D without figuring out how to pay for it.

Are we all suffering from a collective bout of amnesia?

The Romney camp’s explanation for their electoral loss fits right in with the broader picture they tried to paint of the Obama presidency. In their world, Barack Obama “has fundamentally changed the relationship between government and the people of this country,” as Jon Stewart put it in his debate with O’Reilly.

But it’s simply not true.

And the truth matters. Obama didn’t win the election because he’s giving away free stuff, and perpetrating such a myth only serves to obscure what’s really going on and what really needs to be done in Washington.

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

The Great “Fiscal Responsibility” Hoax

You’re probably worried about the federal budget deficit. Seven out of every ten American voters say the deficit plays a “very important” role in deciding whom to vote for.

And you probably think that Mitt Romney is the candidate who would do a better job of reducing the deficit. In this category, voters favor him over Obama, 51 to 37. That’s a big gap, considering the national polls are a statistical tie.

Even the South Florida Sun-Sentinel believes the hype. One of the reasons they gave for endorsing Romney was to “exercise…fiscal discipline” and “get government spending under control.”

They’ve been had. You all have.

The belief that Republicans are more fiscally conservative than Democrats is an old one. It’s so deeply ingrained in the American myth that it’s hard to know where it started. But it’s completely, factually, undeniably wrong — and has been so for awhile.

In their book Presimetrics: What the Facts Tell Us About How the Presidents Measure Up On the Issues We Care About, economist Mike Kimel and journalist Michael E. Kanell calculate the change in government spending under every president from Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush.

They found that government spending, relative to the size of the economy, increased much faster under Republican administrations than under Democratic ones. George W. Bush presided over a greater increase in government spending than any president since Lyndon Johnson, and George H.W. Bush wasn’t far behind. Bill Clinton, in contrast, was the only president since Eisenhower to actually reduce government spending. Even Reagan didn’t do that.

Since Mitt Romney has promised to increase the Pentagon budget by $2 trillion over the next decade, I find it hard to believe that he would be any different from his Republican forebears.

Kimel and Kanell also report how the budget deficit fared under each president. Here’s where the “fiscal responsibility” myth really falls apart: The Republicans increased the deficit, while the Democrats reduced it!

The least “fiscally responsible” administrations were Bush Jr., Bush Sr., Ford, and Nixon. The most deficit reduction came under Clinton and — believe it or not — Jimmy Carter.

In fact, the only presidents in this group who added to our national debt burden were Reagan and the two Bush’s. Everyone else presided over a decline in government debt, relative to the size of the economy.

For goodness sake, they said so straight to your face.

“I am not worried about the deficit,” said Reagan. “It is big enough to take care of itself.”

“Deficits don’t matter,” said Dick Cheney.

So, when economists complain over and over and over that Romney’s math doesn’t add up, they’re not just making an academic point. When Obama asks him how he’d pay for a $5 trillion tax cut, the fact that he can’t answer — the fact that every fact-checker in the known universe has said that his tax plan will blow up the budget deficit — is a flashing red warning sign that he will do what Republican presidents have been doing for half a century.

Which brings me to his opponent, Barack Obama.

On January 7, 2009, two weeks before Obama was sworn into office, the Congressional Budget Office reported that George W. Bush was bequeathing a budget deficit of $1.2 trillion. This year, the deficit is $1.3 trillion.

In other words, 92 percent of the deficit that everyone blames on Obama was actually inherited from his predecessor.

Here are the facts: In Reagan’s first term, government spending grew 8.7 percent per year. In his second term, it grew 4.9 percent per year. Under Bush Sr., 5.4 percent per year. Under Clinton’s two terms, 3.2 percent and 3.9 percent. Under Bush Jr., 7.3 percent and 8.1 percent.

Got all those numbers? Okay. Brace yourself. Under Obama: 1.4 percent.

Our current budget deficit has nothing to do with out-of-control Democratic spending and everything to do with a massive recession, tax cuts, two wars, and a scare campaign that Republicans have been successfully waging for decades to cover up their serial fiscal irresponsibility. Whether you let them fool you again is entirely up to you.

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

The Many Tax Plans of Mitt Romney

Math is pretty important these days. If you’ve been watching the presidential debates, you’ve probably felt like the candidates should use a chalkboard to explain their disagreement on taxes. The numbers have been flying, and many Americans are confused.

I’m here to help. This is a tutorial on the many tax plans of Mitt Romney.

Don’t be scared. As Bill Clinton said, it’s just arithmetic.

Earlier this year, Romney announced his first tax plan. His big idea was to reduce individual income tax rates by 20 percent in addition to extending all the Bush tax cuts permanently.

So, instead of paying 10 percent, the bottom tax bracket would pay 8 percent. Instead of paying 15 percent, the next tax bracket would pay 12 percent. And so on.

But 20 percent of 35 is a lot bigger than 20 percent of 10, so high-income taxpayers would get a much bigger tax cut.

Romney also proposed cutting the corporate income tax, eliminating the estate tax, and eliminating the tax on investment income for folks earning less than $200,000.

Under this plan, the top 0.1 percent of households would get an average tax cut of $725,716, while the middle class would get $810 apiece.

But there’s a problem with this plan. It would decrease tax revenue and increase the budget deficit by $456 billion in 2015. That would almost double what our deficit is projected to be at that time.

So Mitt Romney came up with a new plan. After he cut taxes by $456 billion, he’d raise them by $456 billion.

If that sounds like a waste of time, you’re not thinking like a politician. This way, he could campaign on a huge tax cut and, at the same time, vow to reduce the budget deficit. He just wouldn’t tell people he won’t actually be cutting their taxes. Because he can’t. Not unless he wants to increase the budget deficit.

Here’s how he’d do it. After he lowered everyone’s tax rates, he’d eliminate enough deductions and tax credits to make up for all that lost tax revenue.

So, you can say goodbye to the child tax credit, the education tax credit, the charitable-donation deduction, the mortgage-interest deduction, etc, etc. I’m just making this up because Romney never specified which deductions and credits he’d eliminate. And that’s kind of important, right? He’s proposing a radical restructuring of the tax code that could have a huge effect on you, and he refuses — again and again and again — to give any details. But suffice it to say, if you benefit from any of those deductions or credits, you should be worried.

Now he’s got a new problem. For high-income households, there aren’t enough deductions and credits to make up for the massive tax cuts they’d enjoy under Romney’s plan. Even if he got rid of all those deductions and credits, they’d still get a tax cut.

If this plan isn’t going to increase the deficit and high-income households are getting a tax cut, then everyone else is getting a tax increase. In this scenario, the middle class would pay an average of $899 more in taxes, while the top 0.1 percent of households would pay $246,652 less.

So Mitt Romney came up with a new plan. Again.

In this week’s debate, Romney proposed putting a cap on itemized deductions. In this scenario, each household could use only $25,000 in itemized deductions.

Since high-income households are more likely to use more than $25,000 in itemized deductions, this plan would hit them harder. So Romney can say he’s taken the burden off the middle class.

But wait. Yep, you guessed it: There’s a problem. Again.

This plan would only raise $103 billion in 2015. If Romney keeps his promise to cut tax rates, he’d be increasing the budget deficit by $353 billion.

No matter how hard he tries, Mitt Romney can’t avoid arithmetic: Cutting taxes increases the budget deficit.

That’s why the last three Republican presidents each presided over massive increases in federal debt. That’s why Dick Cheney said, “Deficits don’t matter.” And that’s why Mitt Romney’s numbers don’t add up.

But don’t worry. I’m sure he’ll change his mind again.

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.