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Robert Reich: The Republican’s Magical Mystery Tour

The pattern seems to be: if you don’t like the facts, make them up.

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Image from Flickr user Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan

By Robert Reich
By arrangement with Robert Reich

According to reports, one of the first acts of the Republican congress will be to fire Doug Elmendorf, current director of the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, because he won’t use “dynamic scoring” for his economic projections.

Dynamic scoring is the magical-mystery math Republicans have been pushing since they came up with supply-side “trickle-down” economics.

It’s based on the belief that cutting taxes unleashes economic growth and thereby produces additional government revenue. Supposedly the added revenue more than makes up for what’s lost when Congress hands out the tax cuts.

Dynamic scoring would make it easier to enact tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, because the tax cuts wouldn’t look as if they increased the budget deficit.

Few economic theories have been as thoroughly tested in the real world as supply-side economics, and so notoriously failed.

Incoming House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan (Republican, Wisconsin) calls it “reality-based scoring,” but it’s actually magical scoring—which is why Elmendorf, as well as all previous CBO directors have rejected it.

Few economic theories have been as thoroughly tested in the real world as supply-side economics, and so notoriously failed.

Ronald Reagan cut the top income tax rate from seventy percent to twenty-eight percent and ended up nearly doubling the national debt. His first budget director, David Stockman, later confessed he dealt with embarrassing questions about future deficits with “magic asterisks” in the budgets submitted to Congress. The Congressional Budget Office didn’t buy them.

George W. Bush inherited a budget surplus from Bill Clinton but then slashed taxes, mostly on the rich. The CBO found that the Bush tax cuts reduced revenues by $3 trillion.

Yet Republicans don’t want to admit supply-side economics is hokum. As a result, they’ve never had much love for the truth-tellers at the Congressional Budget Office.

The CBO has continued to be a truth-telling thorn in the Republican’s side.

In 2011, when briefly leading the race for the Republican presidential nomination, Newt Gingrich called the CBO “a reactionary socialist institution which does not believe in economic growth, does not believe in innovation and does not believe in data that has not been internally generated.”

The CBO has continued to be a truth-telling thorn in the Republican’s side.

The budget plan Paul Ryan came up with in 2012—likely to be a harbinger of what’s to come from the Republican congress—slashed Medicaid, cut taxes on the rich and on corporations, and replaced Medicare with a less well-funded voucher plan.

Ryan claimed these measures would reduce the deficit. The Congressional Budget Office disagreed.

Ryan persevered. His 2013 and 2014 budget proposals were similarly filled with magic asterisks. The CBO still wasn’t impressed.

Yet it’s one thing to cling to magical-mystery thinking when you have only one house of Congress. It’s another when you’re running the whole shebang.

Now that Elmendorf is on the way out, presumably to be replaced by someone willing to tell Ryan and other Republicans what they’d like to hear, the way has been cleared for all the magic they can muster.

In this as in other domains of public policy, Republicans have not shown a particular affinity for facts.

Climate change? It’s not happening, they say. And even if it is happening, humans aren’t responsible. (Almost all scientists studying the issue find it’s occurring and humans are the major cause.)

Widening inequality? Not occurring, they say. Even though the data show otherwise, they claim the measurements are wrong.

If all else fails, fire your own experts who tell the truth, and replace them with people who will pronounce falsehoods.

Voting fraud? Happening all over the country, they say, which is why voter IDs and other limits on voting are necessary. Even though there’s no evidence to back up their claim (the best evidence shows no more than 31 credible incidents of fraud out of a billion ballots cast), they continue to assert it.

Evolution? Just a theory, they say. Even though all reputable scientists support it, many Republicans at the state level say it shouldn’t be taught without also presenting the view found in the Bible.

Weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? America’s use of torture? The George W. Bush administration and its allies in Congress weren’t overly interested in the facts.

The pattern seems to be: if you don’t like the facts, make them up.

Or have your benefactors finance “think tanks” filled with hired guns who will tell the public what you and your patrons want them to say.

If all else fails, fire your own experts who tell the truth, and replace them with people who will pronounce falsehoods.

There’s one big problem with this strategy, though. Legislation based on lies often causes the public to be harmed.

Not even “truthiness,” as Stephen Colbert once called it, is an adequate substitute for the whole truth.

Robert B. Reich, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written thirteen books, including the best sellers Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future and The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism. His latest, Beyond Outrage, is now out in paperback. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause.

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