Is Obama to Blame for our Deficits?

Today I will tackle the question: How much of the debt accumulated since Obama became President can be “blamed” on him? Obviously, one of the harshest criticisms Republicans level against the President is that he is to blame for the large deficits that have characterized our budget under his presidency, but is this deserved? For the moment, we will leave aside the question of whether it was wise to sign into law the tax cuts and spending programs that he did, and just focus on getting a number on the amount of the debt he is responsible for. Rep Michelle Bachmann (who is running for President)  has famously used this chart to pin blame for our recent deficits on Obama:

Its a bit hard to read, but the deficit in 2009 was $1.41 trillion and according to the most recent graph on her website, the deficit in 2010 was $1.29  trillion. The projected deficit for this year is 1.5 trillion and since we’re almost exactly halfway through the year, we’ll call it $.75 trillion for a total of 3.45 trillion in debt accumulated since Obama took office.

What I will count into law are spending programs that Obama signed into law. So, to start we have the stimulus program which, to date has cost $654 billion.

The next big ticket item is the Affordable Care Act, the president’s healthcare reform measure. Contrary to popular belief, It is entirely paid for, and will even give us a surplus of over the next decade. The original bill was supposed to save $138 billion over a decade, but I believe that’s been downgraded to about $114 billion over 10 years. It was signed a little over a year ago so we’ll say that the Affordable Care Act gives a debt surplus of +$11.5 billion. 

Pres. Obama passed a budget for fiscal year 2010 and FY 2011 (fiscal year 2009 was signed into law by President Bush). Using the spending in Bush’s final budget as a baseline, Obama signed an increase in discretionary spending of $168 billion in FY 2010 and the continuing resolutions covering most of FY 2011 followed the same trajectory as FY 2010, so we’ll say he increased the deficit by $126 billion during the first 9 months of this fiscal year. Note: these include the costs of the wars, using Bush’s last budget as a baseline. That gives us a grand total of -$294 billion in spending as part of the normal, discretionary budget process.

Money for the bailouts of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as well as for Wall Street and the auto companies was approved and signed by Pres. Bush, though some of  it was disbursed by Pres. Obama. Because we are dealing with money signed into law by Pres. Obama and not money simply spent under his presidency (which would be unfair and would open up a huge can of worms I am not prepared to go into) we will not count their costs against Obama.

There have also been several other measures that were passed in order to aid the economic recovery. These totaled (table 1) $93 billion in 2010 and in 2011 they will total $270 billion. The recovery measures for 2011 were passed as part of a tax cut package extending the Bush tax cuts, which were set to expire at the end of 2010. Now, Obama worked out this deal with the Republican Congressional leaders who provided many of the votes for the package, so its not really fair for Republicans to brandish this package as a weapon against Obama on the deficit, but in looking at the package from a non-partisan stance, its clear that it has Obama’s signature on it, so it will count against him. Extending the Bush tax cuts will cost $375 billion in 2011.  After slicing the appropriations for 2011 in half (the year is half over) Obama signed into law -415.5 billion in tax cuts and government spending to aid the recovery.

In total, the stimulus program has cost -$654 billion, the Affordable Care Act has gained us +$11.5 billion, Obama has raised discretionary spending by -$294 billion and extra measures to aid the recovery have cost us -$415.5 billion to date, for a grand total of $1.352 trillion in spending signed into law by President Obama to date. That means Obama is “responsible” for, at most, 39 percent of the $3.45 trillion in debt accumulated since he took office. So, perhaps the lines on Michelle Bachmann’s famous graph should only be two-fifths as tall as they are.

But, (I’m sure some of you are thinking) how is  this possible? How has our deficit  gone up so much in the past two years, but yet Obama  has signed bills accounting for less than half of the balance? The thing about recessions is that during recessions, people start paying less in taxes because they have less money total, so they have less taxable income. There are also more people who rely on government programs like unemployment checks, food stamps and Medicaid during recessions. (As Paul Krugman explains) Drawing in less in taxes and giving out more in automatic government aid obviously increases the deficit, but since these changes happen automatically (Obama didn’t sign them into law) and we can’t blame the recession on Obama, he cannot be blamed for their effect on the deficit. (Note: All expansions of unemployment assistance beyond the usual 26-week period are counted against Obama, even though in the past all Presidents have expanded unemployment during recessions)

*Fair disclaimer: This analysis does not measure the cost of interest on the borrowing initiated  by Obama, which would tend to raise his total. Nor does it take into account the increased economic activity that undeniably resulted from the spending and tax breaks he signed into law, which would tend to lower his total.*

For a final primer on how our debt happened and what will drive it in the future, here’s Ezra Klein.

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Debt Limit Strategy

The United States debt limit has to be raised. There is no question about that. The way appropriations in the US work is that Congress first passes a budget, and then if  the budget is not balanced, they approve an increase in the US’s debt ceiling (they authorize the treasury to lend money) to cover  the debt they just signed into law in their budget. This makes many budgets a 2-step process. Earlier this year, Congress (Republicans and Democrats) signed a budget that busts the debt limit and no one has produced an alternate that will keep us from hitting the debt ceiling on Aug 2. That means that all these negotiations leading up to a signing of the debt limit increase are just a prelude to the inevitable. So what’s all the fuss about?

(Its a long post, so skip this section and the next if you’re up-to-date on the debt limit negotiations)

Republicans are currently threatening not to increase the debt limit and thereby render all the new debt they voted into law null and void. If Aug 2 comes along and the debt limit is not raised, the Treasury will not be able to issue any more debt and so will have to stop paying for things. This would amount to a partial default by the United States and would mean that the US would have to immediately stop paying for some of the major things it does. Specifically,  it would have to completely cut 2 of its 5 major spending areas (or significant portions of all 5):

  1. The Defense Department
  2. Social Security
  3. Medicare
  4. Medicaid
  5. All other domestic spending (Education, EPA, National Parks, Homeland Security, etc )

Needless to say, stopping all payment for anyone of these programs would withdraw billions from the economy. Soldiers, doctors and government employees could go without pay or the elderly could stop getting their social security checks from the government. This would plunge the US back into a recession. That’s not to mention the harm this would do to our ability to lend and borrow money in the future. I wrote a  post  talking about how we are essentially borrowing money for free right now (its a bit of an over-simplification, but bear with me). As you probably have heard, US government debt is backed by “the full faith and credit of the United  States.” Not raising the debt limit would violate  the full faith and credit of the US for the first time in history and would convince many creditors that they should not lend to us (or at least not lend to us at such good rates) in the future. And just like that, our days of cheap borrowing are gone and the debt skyrockets because suddenly we have HUGE interest payments on all of our once cheap, cheap debt.

Now for the interesting stuff…

The Republican leadership knows very well the calamity that would ensue if the debt limit is not increased, however,  they see this as an opportunity to force Obama and the Democrats in the Senate to agree to drastically cut government spending.  If the economy gets wrecked because  the government defaults on its debt, it is very unlikely that Pres. Obama will be re-elected. Republicans are betting that if that happens, the American people will blame the man at the top (Obama)  instead of them for causing the nation’s economy to implode. Even if both Congressional Republicans and Pres. Obama get blamed, that’s still good for the Republican Party because they get to install a Republican president in 2013. So, Republicans are betting that Democrats will stop at almost nothing to get a deal worked out on the debt limit. And, since Republican votes are needed for any debt limit increase (the Republicans control the House of Representatives), that deal will have to be worked out on the Republicans’ terms.

Republicans’ demands are for $2 trillion in spending cuts over the next 10 years. Note: they are not asking for $2 trillion in debt-reduction over the next 10 years, they want $2 trillion in spending cuts.  Well, that’s kind of the same thing, right? No. Lots of time spending cuts can increase the deficit. For instance, cutting money from the IRS leads to more people cheating on their taxes, which increases the debt while lowering spending on preventive medical care can increase costs on acute care down the road. Focusing on spending cuts as opposed to debt reduction also leaves increasing taxes out of the equation and in a world where debt=revenue-spending, leaving out one side of  the equation  is a pretty big omission. Predictably, that’s where the sticking point is now.

Democrats have insisted, quite wisely I think, that this be a debt-reduction package and that it also be a compromise between the two parties. Democrats have argued that since the Republicans insist on cutting programs that benefit the poor and middle class (like Medicare and Medicaid) some tax breaks should be ended for the very rich, so that the pain from this deal is spread to everyone. You would expect a deficit-reduction “grand bargain” to be 50% tax increases (which are favored by Democrats) and 50% spending cuts (which are favored by Republicans).  Here, Democrats have come all the way down to asking that 17% of the package be revenue increases (showing their weak bargaining position).  Ezra Klein explains what specifically the Democrats have asked for: (more info here)

Specifically, the Obama administration was looking at a rule that lets businesses value their inventory at less than they bought it for in order to lower their tax burden, a loophole that lets hedge-fund managers count their income as capital gains and pay a 15 percent marginal tax rate, the tax treatment of private jets, oil and gas subsidies, and a limit on itemized deductions for the wealthy.

So, the Democrats want a compromise where the ultra-rich (hedge-fund managers, owners of private jets and oil companies)  pay 1 dollar more in taxes for every 5 dollars cut from programs that benefit the poor and the middle class. Republicans have rejected ANY plan that attempts to draw ANY extra revenue from ANY source. Note that the “tax increases” outlined above  aren’t even really tax increases at all because they don’t actually raise anyone’s tax rates. All they do is close a few different loopholes that the rich and some corporations use to get out of paying taxes. But that doesn’t matter to Republicans because ANY additional revenue for the federal government is unacceptable.

See, the debate here is not “let’s Democrats and Republicans come together to hash out a deal to reduce our debt and then raise the debt ceiling,” it is Republicans saying: “give us what we want and we will help you to raise the debt ceiling and keep the economy from imploding.” Republicans are saying that if they don’t get  their way, they will destroy the US economy. In this they are making a bet that the Democrats care more about the economy than they do, and so will be willing to agree to whatever demands  they make in order to keep the economy afloat.

The Republican Political Calculus

In an earlier post, I argued that the government should increase the money it is putting into the economy in order to help us get out of this low-growth funk. This is the view advocated by many economists and many liberals in Congress. Well, if the government putting money into the economy would help us out short term, then obviously taking money out of the economy will hurt the economy in the short term. This is part of the Republican calculus.

At the very least, Republicans expect to get a deal out of the President that will slowly sap our economic strength by removing hundreds of billions of government dollars from the economy over the next few years. Republicans are hoping that this will hurt the economy enough to deny Pres. Obama re-election next year. It is widely acknowledged that unless the economy improves, the voters will punish Obama in November 2012, so the Republicans do want a weak economy between now and then.

Republicans also hope that cutting this deal with them will alienate Obama from his liberal political base. Republicans only need Obama and a handful of moderate Democratic Senators to pass their spending cuts and increase the debt limit. If they can get Obama to agree to a plan full of painful cuts to Medicaid and Medicare and nothing in return (except their agreement not to destroy the economy), liberals will be infuriated. Especially if the plan passes with only token Democratic support in Congress, Obama will risk disenchanting his strongest supporters in advance of the coming election.

Republicans are also being so demanding because  they know that if Obama wins re-election, then come January 2013, the Bush tax cuts are up again for renewal. Obama has promised to veto any attempt at renewing Bush’s tax cuts for the richest 2% of the population. Republicans want the tax breaks for the rich to be renewed more than almost anything. At that point the dynamic will be reversed. Republicans will have to play on Obama’s terms and will have to decide whether they want to agree to Obama’s demands and let the tax cuts for the rich expire, or whether they want to let taxes rise on the other 98% of people in America in a PR nightmare. Of course, if  Obama doesn’t get re-elected they don’t have to worry about that. If  he still does get re-elected and the tax cuts for the rich expire, well then Republicans will say that it was a good thing they held the line against higher taxes on the rich when they had  the upper-hand in the debt ceiling negotiations. Because the worst thing in the world would be for the rich to have their taxes raised twice.

In conclusion, there is a good chance the debt limit is unconstitutional.

Supreme Court Again Rules Money Equals Speech

The Supreme Court ruled again that the rich have more free speech rights than you or me  when they ruled that Arizona’s campaign finance laws are unconstitutional. The Wall Street Journal explains:

The Arizona measure was enacted by voter initiative after corruption scandals rocked the statehouse. The 1998 Citizens Clean Elections Act created a voluntary public-finance system in which candidates who forgo the right to solicit unlimited private donations receive a grant upon raising a set number of $5 contributions, from 220 for a legislative race to 4,410 for a gubernatorial candidates.

In addition, when a  publicly-funded candidate faces off with a candidate who has been able to raise  large sums of money from donors or their own personal wealth, the publicly-funded  candidate receives matching funds so they can keep up with their high-spending opponent. ” But the law’s challengers—five conservative politicians and two political action committees—said the law stifled free speech. They argued that, when they raised and spent money to promote their messages, their speech was punished because it triggered government subsidies to their rivals.”

That last part of the law was what the conservative majority struck down in a 5-4 ruling, saying that giving a candidate matching funds somehow restricts the “speech” of their well-financed rival. Logically, how does this work? I have no idea. Apparently, if someone is allowed to “speak” just as much as you are… your right to free speech is being infringed… Of course even getting to that logically dubious conclusion first requires you to accept the premise that huge campaign contributions are directly equivalent to the free speech mentioned in the first amendment.

I find it very hard to believe that the writers/ratifiers of the 1st amendment intended money to equal free speech. The court’s conservative originalists (Scalia, Thomas, who believe that Constitution was written in stone the moment the founders laid pen to paper) sided with the majority on this one. It seems very hypocritical for them to on the one hand say that the original intent of the writers of the Constitution is all we consider when determining something’s constitutionality and then on the other hand to read a meaning into the free speech clause of the first amendment that its writers never intended.

Well, now you know that gobs of corporate money are protected as free speech and it is unconstitutional for you to try to respond to those gobs of corporate money with anything except more gobs of corporate money. Obviously, no one has as much right to free speech as a billion dollar corporation.

GOP Presidential Candidates Series: Herman Cain

I’ve decided that it would be good to do an intermittent series on the numerous candidates who want to run for President on the Republican ticket. Even though chances are very low that I would ever vote for one of them in the general election, the choice of who will run against President Obama is a very important one. I hope I can shed some light on the major players.

That being said,  I will start by looking at a candidate that I don’t think I could ever support (to give me time to make  up my mind about the rest!). Herman Cain is the former CEO of Godfather’s pizza, a radio host and a Baptist minister. He is  the only black man in the race on the Republican side and was raised from very humble origins in segregated Georgia to become a successful businessman. However, he has  never held any elected office, though he did run for the Republican nomination to be the US Senator from Georgia in 2004  (and lost badly). Lately he has been making some huge waves in conservative Republican circles by drawing considerable support from Tea Party Republicans. As Nate Silver explains, Cain’s poll numbers are  what makes him such  an anomaly:

In the post-reform primary era (1972 onward), there’s never really been a candidate that combined such limited name recognition, such underwhelming credentials — and such impressive polling.

So, not many Republicans know of Cain, but among the ones that do, he is very popular. This probably speaks to the anti-Washington fervor of many Republicans  more than anything, but it is very interesting that someone with no political background is being considered by so many for so high a position. Let’s leave it at that and dig into his policy positions, which is where the interesting stuff is.

Cain has said (and I have heard it repeated by some Republicans) that his candidacy would “take race off the table”  because  he could criticize Pres. Obama without being labeled a racist. Well, as this piece in Slate  magazine lays out, Cain’s candidacy might take some black/white racial issues off the table, but nominating him would bring other racial/ethnic issues to the fore.  You see, Cain has a problem with Muslims. Specifically, he does not trust Muslim doctors to operate on him (He though he was being operated on by a Muslim once, but phew!  it was only a Lebanese Christian). He also said he would not appoint a Muslim to be a federal judge or as a  cabinet official (the Slate article) because apparently Muslims are  not dedicated to this country or to the Constitution. This was not a temporary slip-up either. He has repeatedly said that he would illegally administer a religious test for people to take office in the United States. He said he would force Rep. Keith Ellison (who is  a Muslim) to swear his oath of office on a Bible, instead of on his Holy book. In a country where Herman Cain was once forced to the back of the bus and denied  the chance to drink from a “whites-only” water fountain, a President Cain would bring back prejudice and racism towards people from a different background than himself.

But its OK because  he’s only targeting Muslims, right? (sarcasm)

Among Cain’s other stances he has promised not to sign a bill that is longer  than 3 pages (though that’s probably just a stupid, populist pandering line and not a serious pledge). On his website, Cain states: “liberals have forced excessive environmental regulations that have stifled our domestic energy production, and instead, forced American consumers to rely far too heavily upon foreign oil.” I have never seen a serious study that says getting rid of regulations would significantly reduce our dependence on foreign oil. (if you know of one, put it in the comments) He really does  not like the EPA at all and has  said that he would appoint the CEO of Shell Oil and other energy executives to a commission that would get rid of regulations on their own companies. Is that a conflict of interest?

On healthcare, his website is mostly just a bunch of lies about the Affordable Care Act and then a couple of platitudes about tort reform and promoting HSAs, neither of which would address rising costs more than a percentage point or two. He also wants to expand the health insurance tax exemption for employers to include employees as well. The exemption is certainly a problem for the market, but the way to fix  it isn’t to expand it, the way to fix it is to get rid of the special tax  break for employer-sponsored insurance. Interestingly, in the “economy” section of his campaign platform he lambastes the federal government because

The federal government should not be in the business of picking and choosing industries they support financially. This happens in the form of subsidies, and special tax breaks in which the government “plays favorite” with one industry and in turn, hinders the competitiveness of another.

So he doesn’t support special tax breaks for specific industries… except he does support the biggest one of those special tax  breaks. He doesn’t support the government “picking and choosing industries” to support financially, unless its the health insurance industry, presumably…. how inconsistent.

Well, I cant find much to like here. I hope Cain fizzles out soon. America would probably be better for it. If you have any questions or disputes, leave a comment.

The Government Needs to Improve the Economy

The title of this post may seem to be a no-brainer, and if it is, that’s good. Too much of the thinking in Washington at the moment is focused on the deficit and not on improving the economy. Both the economy and the deficit need work, but which is the more important and most pressing? Clearly, its the economy. No one should be complacent when we have 9% unemployment and anemic growth, but all anybody wants to talk about is the deficit which (shockingly) has nothing to do with unemployment. Sure, if we don’t deal with the deficit, at some point in the future we will have to pay higher taxes or get by with less government spending, but is that an immediate danger? Not at all.

The United States currently finds itself in the peculiar position of having an ever-growing mountain of debt and also having a lot of investors who can’t wait to buy it from us at rock-bottom rates. Under normal circumstances, as the amount that we owe increased we would have to increase the amount we payed investors (in the form of interest interest) to order to get them to buy our debt. But, thanks to a host of factors mostly out of our control (European debt crisis, Japanese economic troubles), we are currently selling our gobs of Treasury I.O.U.s for next to nothing. We are racking up tons of debt almost for free! Now, eventually the interest on our debt will rise and we will have to raise taxes and/or cut spending in order to pay it off, but for now (and probably for the next year or two) the US  deficit can increase almost without consequence.

That leads me back to my original point. Fixing the economy. The burst of the housing bubble wiped out much of Americans’ home equity and forced many into bankruptcy and foreclosure, while the stock market crash wiped out Americans’ savings and the subsequent mass layoffs left  many without jobs. As a result, Americans’ disposable income is at very low levels and that is a very bad thing in an economy that is based  70% off consumption. Without an infusion of money from somewhere, America is doomed to a slow, long slog back to good economic health.

Where could this infusion of money come from? The government of course. Robert Frank lays out the case for a payroll tax cut in the New York Times here. There is a 6.2 percent Social Security payroll tax on employees on every paycheck they receive and a 6.2 percent tax on employers every time they give their employee a paycheck. Cutting these taxes would give employees more money in their wallets which they would spend, buying things to stimulate the economy. Frank says it would also give employers more of an incentive to hire new employees since it would be cheaper for them to do so. While this is true in theory, I’m not so sure about this particular claim. Employers have been very reluctant to add to their workforce even though there are already some tax incentives to do so. Some Obama administration figures have been floating the idea of a payroll tax cut as part of the debt negotiations. This would raise the debt in the short term, but in the long-term, a robust economy is the best way to reduce the debt. And as we have seen, a short term increase in the debt is almost free (for now).

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Republicans love tax cuts! Paul Ryan’s budget, which almost all Republicans love, proposed lowering taxes on the rich to levels not seen since before the Great Depression. Republican dogma says that cutting taxes is the best way to promote growth. Surely Republicans are the ones pushing for these tax cuts.” If you were thinking that then you are sadly wrong. Republicans aren’t in favor of all tax cuts, just tax cuts for the rich. Republicans fought tooth and nail for tax breaks for the rich in the tax cut deal they worked out with President Obama six months ago and the Paul Ryan budget includes huge tax cuts for the rich, and nothing for anyone else. Payroll taxes primarily affect the working and middle class (they don’t apply to income above about $105,000) so sources say Republicans really aren’t very interested in cutting them.

Its too bad really. The economy needs help and the government is in a position to give it help by injecting money into the economy. But, all anyone seems to want to do is take money out of the economy to fix our debt problems. Oh well.

Honesty and the Debt Ceiling

Frequent readers of this blog will find that my biggest pet peeve is dishonesty. I truly don’t mind people with opinions different than my own (and I love to debate with them) but I really can’t stand it when people lie or are intellectually dishonest. So, much of my blog will focus on calling out and correcting lies floating around in the public sphere. This week, I start with a particularly bad and dishonest column on the debt ceiling.

The political negotiations on raising the United States’ debt ceiling are extremely important because they will determine whether the US is plunged back into recession this year and what our government programs will look like in the years to come. Because of the importance of these negotiations, there is a lot of demagoguery and dishonesty floating around about the US debt and about the political talks which are aimed at bringing down the debt. One particularly egregious example is this column by Yuval Levin in the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard entitled “We Don’t Estimate Speeches.”

He starts by talking about a recent report by the non-partisan, score-keeping Congressional Budget Office (CBO) where it finds that if the US Congress continues on its current, likely spending trajectory, the US will rack up a large (and unsustainable) amount of debt in the coming decades. He does this to scare his audience and to let them know that the US debt is, indeed, a huge problem. However, along the way he conveniently forgets to mention that the CBO, in the same report he cites, also produced another scenario, one in which the debt is not as large a problem in the US’s future. But, the CBO’s “extended-baseline scenario” projects that the Bush tax cuts will fully expire (as they are scheduled to) while letting the Alternative Minimum Tax expand (as the law says it should), along with a couple other fixes which are anathema to Republicans, so Levin just talks about the scarier scenario. (More on this at the CBO and at Ezra Klein’s blog)

Anyway, now that his audience is sufficiently scared about the prospects of an ever-growing and strangling US debt, Levin starts talking about the debt negotiations. Along the way, he offers the obligatory praise for the Ryan budget that is now mandatory among Republicans. (I’ll address the Ryan plan at a later date but here’s a nice non-partisan evaluation of the tax cuts for the rich in the plan.) Here’s his summary of the debt negotiations:

Until last week, that fight had been focused on negotiations led by Vice President Biden. Those talks certainly revealed something about the Democrats’ priorities: In the midst of a spending-driven debt explosion and a weak economy, Democrats in Washington want to raise taxes. But the negotiations also revealed the continuing unwillingness of the president to make specific proposals about how to reduce spending, reform entitlements, and bring the debt under control. On June 23, House majority leader Eric Cantor (who had represented House Republicans at the negotiations) decided he’d had enough, and left the talks in order to force the issue to a higher level and compel the president to get specific.

Egads! Tax increases? The nerve of those Democrats! You mean that in the middle of debt-reduction talks, the Democrats are proposing a way to decrease the debt by raising revenue?? Insane! Let’s forget for a minute (Levin certainly has) that total federal tax revenue is already at the lowest levels since 1950 (table 1.2). Acknowledging that inconvenient fact would mean that we are not in the middle of a “spending-driven debt explosion,” but, in fact, in the middle of a debt explosion caused by the government taking in too little revenue (Hellooooo Bush tax cuts).

Levin is probably right though. We are in the middle of a weak economy and now is not the time to raise taxes because when the government taxes, it takes dollars out of the economy, and right now the economy needs all the extra dollars it can get. Of course, if Levin was being intellectually honest he would oppose any government spending cuts for the same reason. If the government cuts spending, it also takes dollars out of the economy, hurting economic growth at a particularly fragile economic moment. That contradiction, sadly, is central to Republican thinking at this time. In their view, the government can’t raise taxes because it will hurt the economy, but the government can cut spending all it wants, even though that too will certainly hurt the economy.

Also, its not like Democrats just proposed increasing taxes out of nowhere. They proposed taxes as a deficit-reduction measure in negotiations over how to reduce the deficit. Its not like they just enjoy raising taxes for the hell of it.

Then Levin tries to say that the President is not being “specific” enough in the debt negotiations. Huh? The debt negotiations are going on behind closed doors. Levin doesn’t know what’s been specifically proposed. None of us do. Eric Cantor, the lead Republican negotiator, was the one who withdrew from the talks. When he stopped negotiating for the Republican side he said it was because he could never support a tax increase as part of the deal, not because the President wasn’t being “specific” enough. By all accounts, the negotiators have plenty of very specific cuts hammered out, the only sticking point is whether taxes will also be raised as part of this deal. Republican obstinacy on taxes killed this round of negotiations, not a lack of “specificity” on the part of the President.

Levin’s account of the negotiations is all the more confusing because the President wasn’t even involved in the negotiations. Vice President Joe Biden was handling them for the Democratic side. The President presented a debt reduction vision in a speech earlier this year (the “Speech” referred to in the title of Levin’s column) but has wisely left the actual deal to be worked out by the VP and the Congressmen who will actually be voting on the deal. Would it make any sense at all for the President to be out making speeches and policy proposals while negotiations are still ongoing? Wouldn’t doing so just undermine and distract from the talks that were already happening? In one last hypocritical moment, Levin fails to mention that the Ryan plan that he adores also fails to specify what cuts it will make in tax expenditures. The Ryan plan has to make huge cuts in tax expenditures in order to afford lowering taxes on the rich, but Levin doesn’t take Ryan to task for being mum on what specifically he would cut.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll stop my critique there. Its a shame that you can get a job writing this kind of drivel. Disputes? Questions? The comment box awaits!