Protestors rally against higher taxes in Santa Barbara, California. (Reuters/Phil McCarten, File.)
Happy Tax Day! Or maybe, instead, we should call it "Ronald Reagan Day." Consider the advertising slogan of TurboTax: "The Power to Keep What's Yours." With Ayn Rand, with our fortieth president and his fawning acolytes, the nation's best known suite of tax preparation software presumes taxation to be theft, and the very opposite of what jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (who left his residuary estate to the United States government) more accurately called it: "the price we pay for civilized society." Here in our not-so-civilized society, when it comes to taxes, Ronald Reagan has won. For example, his claim that tax cuts "pay for themselves"—i.e. unleash so much economic mojo that the government ends up receiving more revenue for the U.S Treasury when rates are cut. Even though that is actually "magical thinking," a "fantasy," and a "just-so story," and a "bedtime fairy tale Republicans tell themselves."
But don't take my word for it. I'm just a Bolshevik with a laptop. The quotes above come from a 2010 article debunking the right's "supply side" fantasies by National Review staffer Kevin D. Williamson. That piece, entitled "Goodbye Supply Side," pointed out, "There is no evidence that [George Bush's] tax cuts on net produced more revenue than the Treasury would have realized without them." And I remember thinking when I read that that this was an extraordinary piece of truth-telling—perhaps even some sort of watershed moment in the intellectual life of American conservatism. Perhaps it would inspire a brace of self-reckoning, in which the right's perfervid army of ideological hacks suddenly started questioning for the first time whether claiming black is white and up is down was intellectually or morally sustainable.
Even Rick Perlstein, at this here late date in the game, can sometimes fall prey to naive fantasies about the American right.
The article was ignored. It received a grand total of thirteen tweets. I rang up the author, Kevin Williamson—who, by the way, when he's not telling unseasonable truths to fellow conservatives about economics can spread the Orwellian horseshit just as deep and wide as any other of his benighted comrades—to ask him what effect it had. "None," he replied. Williamson then reflected upon further questioning that, well, some: Certain Republican politicians admit privately that he is correct, but "it's hard to get them to acknowledge it in public because it's become such a piece of dogma."
And so it is—still.
Mitt Romney made the claim that his tax cuts would not increase the deficit a centerpiece of his campaign. Paul Ryan's latest budget presumes the idea as a given. (Kevin, that pretty much belies your claim to me, in your attempt to exculpate your party, that "nobody who is writing budgets who says tax cuts are self-funding.") Every Republican member of the House Ways and Means Committee signed a letter saying tax reform "would lead to higher tax revenues which would simultaneously address both the nation's economic and fiscal reforms.") Supply-side's pioneering bullshit artist—again belying Williamson, who told me, “if you press Arthur Laffer on this stuff I think he comes down roughly where I do"—returned to form last month to argue that a law lowering corporate tax rates should be a Democrat's wet dream and will "simultaneously achieve the Republican longstanding goal of lower tax rates"—bipartisan consensus!—because it will produce "higher government revenues" (must have scrawled the draft on a napkin…). And so on.
Reality boxes them around the ears, and still they keep scrapping: the Bush administration commissioned the Treasury Department to say whether his income tax cuts pay for themselves and Treasury came back with a report explaining that they did not; and yet Bush went a head, unperturbed, passing his income tax cut, which, yes, promptly did not pay for itself. Romney's tax claims received a staggering number of debunkings. Before all that, Williamson's article recalls, "The Congressional Budget Office did a study in 2005 of the effects of a theoretical 10 percent cut in income-tax rates. It ran a couple of different versions of the study, under different sets of economic assumptions. The conclusion the CBO came to was that the growth effects of such a tax cut could be expected to offset between 1 percent and 22 percent of the revenue loss in the first five years. In the second five years, the CBO calculated, feedback effects of tax-rate reductions might actually add 5 percent to the revenue loss—or offset as much as 32 percent of it."
Thirty-two percent is less than one hundred percent—the number required for a tax cut to "pay for itself." So how have conservatives responded? In just the way they do to the 99 percent of scientists who say man-made climate change is a civilization crisis: They say, "Well, they must be counting wrong."
Enter "dynamic scoring." An "idea" Republicans have been goofing around with since 1994, it resembles how a ten-year-old plays one-on-one up to twenty-one with his eighteen-year-old brother: the grownup spots the kid fifteen points. "Dynamic scoring" works like this: You plug numbers into budget predictions that "forecast" what you seek to prove—that tax cuts will do what tax cuts have never done, which is increase revenue. It is opposed to what the dynamists denote as "static scoring," which sounds awful—who wants to be static when you could be dynamic? It's an invented term, apparently; I couldn't find any references to it before the first "dynamic scoring" proposal appeared in 1994. Late last month, meanwhile, "dynamic scoring" was enshrined as the official policy of the United States Senate in a 3 a.m. vote engineered by Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, George W. Bush's former director of the Office of Management and Budget.
So what can you do about it, dear taxpayer? First, call and complain to the six Democratic senators—Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Tim Kaine of Virginia, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Claire McCaskill of Missouri—who put Portman's amendment over the top. Second: one of the things I discovered while researching this piece is that Ayn Rand has been busy on her laptop. The Wikipedia entry on "dynamic scoring" asserts the following embarrassing tautologies: "The method yields a more accurate prediction of a policy's impact on a country's fiscal balance and economic output when it can be performed accurately…Dynamic scoring is more accurate than static scoring when the econometric model correctly captures how households and firms will react to a policy change." It adds an absurd invention, beloved of conservative history-inventors: "Some trace the philosophy back to President Kennedy." Well, yes, "some" do—but hilariously, the article Wikipedia links to to support the claim actually debunks it. Meanwhile the entry does not include the customary section on "controversies." We are to belief this is simply Capital-T Truth. Orwell's 1984 had a ministry devoted to that, didn't it?
And so, Wikipedians: after you get back from the post office to mail off your return, or are done logging on to TurboTax, fix this meretricious crap. The responsible way to begin, I think, is to cite the flagship right-wing magazine admitting it's all mostly made up. Then link to the Forbes contributor who says the same. Then go to sleep satisfied, knowing you've done your bit to sustain civilization—twice in one day.
For another Reagan legacy, read Rick Perlstein's post "Duck Genitals, Bisexual Frogs and Other Right-Wing Anti-Science Inanities."