Talk about fuzzy math. President Obama claims higher taxes will account for a mere third — $1 trillion — of his proposed $3 trillion debt reduction over 12 years, not counting less interest expense. Wrong. The actual number is probably around 50 percent of $4 trillion in savings — some $2 trillion — and could be closer to 60 percent. (More details below.) Instead of offering a template for a Grand Compromise, Obama seems to have created a Grand Obfuscation.
This is just one example among many that shows how Obama’s much-hyped new budget plan is actually neither new nor a budget nor a plan. To the extent that it’s even a “framework” — to grant the White House its preferred descriptor — it’s one whose ideas and goals are precariously fastened together by the chewing gum and sticky tape of rosy economic assumptions and fiscal opacity. Then again, the core purpose isn’t budgetary balance but political persuasion.
The Obama White House naturally wants the media to favorably compare his outline to House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s 73-page “Path to Prosperity” which is highly detailed and has been scored accurate by the Congressional Budget Office. It brings the budget into balance and eliminates the national debt by cutting spending — not raising taxes.
And how does Obama’s “Framework for Shared Prosperity and Shared Fiscal Responsibility compare?
1) Obama’s Framework is a speech, along with a roughly 15-page fact sheet that is unlikely ever to get placed under the CBO microscope. It’s tough to score generalities such as the president’s claim the plan would put “deficits on a declining path toward close to 2.0% of GDP toward the end of the decade.” “Close to”? “Toward the end”?
2) The Obama Framework also fails to give a clear trajectory of where the debt-to-GDP ratio is heading, other than to call for a trigger that would boost taxes or cut spending in 2014 if the ratio doesn’t appear to be bending lower.
3) Other oddities abound. The plan has a 12-year time frame rather than the customary ten. It doesn’t indicate what baseline it uses to make claims that it cuts debt by $4 trillion, if you include interest expense. Nor does it spell out what economic projections are being plugged in. Obama’s 2012 budget released in February was more bullish than the CBO’s, which Ryan uses.
4) Also unlike the Ryan Path, the Obama Framework doesn’t show how his plan affects debt and deficits over the coming decades. If it did, Obama would have to reveal that he can’t a) keep government spending above historical levels and b) balance the budget and reduce debt long term without c) jacking middle class taxes through the roof.
The Obama Framework is so vague and fuzzy that doing a true apples-to-apples comparison between the Ryan Path and the Obama Framework comparison is almost impossible. (Best guess: Ryan cuts $3 trillion more than Obama over a dozen years.) This could be intentional.
The tax issue mentioned earlier provides a perfect illustration. Toward the end of his speech last week, Obama said the following:
This is my approach to reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over the next twelve years. It’s an approach that achieves about $2 trillion in spending cuts across the budget. It will lower our interest payments on the debt by $1 trillion. It calls for tax reform to cut about $1 trillion in spending from the tax code. And it achieves these goals while protecting the middle class, our commitment to seniors, and our investments in the future.
But earlier in the speech, Obama also said this:
In December, I agreed to extend the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans because it was the only way I could prevent a tax hike on middle-class Americans. But we cannot afford $1 trillion worth of tax cuts for every millionaire and billionaire in our society. We can’t afford it. And I refuse to renew them again.
If you’re keeping score, what Obama is actually proposing is $1 trillion in new taxes on wealthier Americans (and small businesses) and $1 trillion in higher tax revenues by reducing tax breaks and subsidies for a total of $2 trillion in new taxes over 12 years. That means total debt reduction, not counting interest, would be $4 trillion, 50 percent of which would come from higher taxes. The econ team at Goldman Sachs ran a similar analysis and found that 56 percent of Obama savings over ten years could come from higher tax revenue.
In this way, Obama relies far more on taxes than the two-parts spending/one-part taxes formula of the Obama-Bowles-Simpson debt panel that is supposedly his model. As Obama said, “It’s an approach that borrows from the recommendations of the bipartisan Fiscal Commission I appointed last year.” Not really.
Now none of this is easy to discern from Obama’s speech nor from the accompanying fact sheet. Neither indicates which budget baseline Obama is using. If he is, for instance, using the standard CBO baseline which assumes all the Bush tax cuts expire, Obama’s budget plan might actually get close to 60 percent of its debt reduction from taxes, especially if he also used the CBO’s gloomier GDP forecast. And if his mid-decade tax “trigger” should get pulled …
Of course, the framework that really interests the White House is a political one. They want to set the terms of the 2012 presidential election debate. And with this budget plan they have, though surely not in the way they intended. America’s debt problem is one of too much spending, not too little revenue. By offering a tax-heavy fiscal fix that keeps Big Government firmly in place, Obama offers Americans a clear choice of economic futures, his or Paul Ryan’s.