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The 'Obama debt' fallacy

Tuesday, 6 November 2012 - 1:30am IST | Agency: Reuters
People will debate the merits of President Obama's stimulus measures - though I think their positive effect on growth and employment is quite clear - but this debate matters little. Government employment has been contracting, and the debate over stimulus has largely faded.

Writing on behalf of the Romney campaign, my friend Mike Boskin has responded to my column from last week that argued that in a number of areas of economic policy, President Obama has the superior vision. Boskin condemns what he refers to as "Obama debt" and argues that Governor Romney has a better plan that he asserts offers "a superior alternative of balanced budgets."

While I was not writing on behalf of the Obama campaign and my piece had a much broader focus than budget deficits, several responses are appropriate. First, Boskin is correct in noting that current budget deficits and rates of debt accumulation cannot be maintained indefinitely, and that stabilizing and ultimately reducing the debt-to-GDP ratio is important if all sorts of economic horrors are to be avoided.

This is a point of agreement between the two candidates-not a basis for choosing between them. Second, Boskin blames the current high level of deficits on President Obama's policies, but that is hard to square with the facts. When President Clinton left office in 2001, we were paying down the national debt at the rate of several hundred billions of dollars a year with budget surpluses.

Since that time the Bush administration moved the United States substantially into budget deficits with large tax cuts, major military commitments to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a new prescription drug entitlement - all undertaken without offsetting expenditure reduction or increasing revenue. Beyond these decisions, the largest factor in the current level of deficits is the worst economic downturn since the Depression - a downturn that began under President Bush.

People will debate the merits of President Obama's stimulus measures - though I think their positive effect on growth and employment is quite clear - but this debate matters little. Government employment has been contracting, and the debate over stimulus has largely faded.

Third, Boskin blurs the facts on who has been constructive with respect to deficit reduction. In addressing the Simpson-Bowles plan, he neglects to mention that the plan was dead on arrival when presented in November 2010 because of the implacable opposition of House Republicans, led by Paul Ryan who voted against the plan within the commission. It has long been clear that President Obama is prepared to reach an agreement based on the underlying principles of Simpson-Bowles. But that has not been possible because Congress is unwilling to raise revenues in addition to cutting expenditures.

Governor Romney seems to share this resistance, having vowed that he would not accept even $1 of revenue increases for every $10 of expenditure cuts. Fourth, in asserting that Governor Romney has a plan to balance the budget, Boskin is blithe, to say the least. Relative to current law, Romney has committed to a 20 percent tax rate reduction that independent observers calculate as costing $5 trillion over 10 years; defense spending increases in the $2 trillion range; and preservation of President Bush's tax cut for the top 1.0 percent of taxpayers that costs $1 trillion.

Romney has said nothing about how this is to be financed other than referencing loopholes for high-income taxpayers. Unfortunately, as independent analysts have repeatedly pointed out, there are not nearly enough loopholes. Even if he closed all tax credits and deductions for high-income taxpayers, he could not offset the cost of his high-income tax cuts, let alone the cost of his entire program. And this is before any consideration of the cost of balancing the budget. Only the election can stop this kind of back-and-forth argument.

This campaign has offered a superb contrast of the economic approach of President Obama and Governor Romney. Obama is carrying on the approach pursued by President Clinton. Romney would go back to the tactics of both Presidents Bush. The results of the two approaches in terms of economic growth, job creation, government debt and virtually every other economic statistic speak for themselves.


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