This is just a quick followup to yesterday’s post on Mitt Romney and his “tax plan.” Two writers I respect had two very good, and different, takes on the issue over whether Romney’s lack of details presented a fundamental problem.
First, Peter Suderman over at Reason calls Romney’s plan flat-out fake (emphasis added):
Take Romney’s proposed overhaul of the tax code. Vague on details and short on substance, it’s more like a press release than anything resembling an actual plan to rewrite the country’s massive, complex tax code. The few details it does reveal tend to focus on the goodies Romney would like to offer and less on their price. Romney proposes an across the board tax cut along with cuts to the corporate rate and various other reductions, including a repeal of the alternative minimum tax. Combined, the Manhattan Institute’s Josh Barro estimates that Romney’s proposals would reduce federal tax revenues by up to $5 trillion over the next decade.
In keeping with his vow to balance the federal budget, Romney also promises to make these cuts in a way that’s revenue neutral. How? He’s yet to say. The plan indicates that Romney would rely on dynamic tax effects while closing tax loopholes and reducing spending in order to offset the lost revenue. Which loopholes would he snip? Which spending would he cut? Anyone wondering about these questions might as well ask a magic eight ball, which would at least provide an answer.
This was something I tweeted about, but I don’t think raised in yesterday’s post – the role of dynamic tax effects in making Romney’s tax plan revenue neutral. The criticism that I take, though, from Suderman is that we don’t even get the to the point where such “dynamic scoring” is what makes the difference. The plan really is that vague.
For a second, different, take I’ll refer to Reihan Salam’s response to Suderman, who essentially says that Romney’s vagueness is a policy-plus (again, emphasis added):
Before a presidential election, it makes sense to get a sense of what a candidate’s broad objectives are regarding tax policy, but providing an extremely detailed proposal propagates the illusion that presidents can unilaterally implement their plans once in office. Moreover, extremely detailed proposals can tie the hands of a president who must negotiate a policy compromise that reconciles various clashing interests. To reconcile clashing interests in a coherent and plausible way in your own proposal is “to negotiate with yourself.” I might acknowledge that raising revenues is part of an acceptable compromise with “the other team,” but does it make sense for me to unilaterally announce my revenue target? Does that then become an opening bid rather than a final offer? And if it’s a final offer, where does the negotiation go from there?
Firstly, I think the inference that his lack of details is an attempt to level with the voters about the realities of executive branch illusions is way off-base. See Romney’s numerous promises to “repeal Obamacare day one.” That being said, Salam also gives several entirely well-reasoned points on why Romney’s vagueness makes sense politically, strategically, etc. The problem I have with Salam’s counter-argument here is that he seems to be arguing against the extreme opposite of vagueness as if that were the only alternative. It’s clearly not the only alternative. Ideally presidential contenders would be able to offer a plan that hits the sweet spot, or a porridge that is not too hot or too cold, sort to speak.
Romney has been very specific in the benefits of his various plans, but the polar opposite on the costs that such benefits would entail. I think pointing this feature out is a valid criticism. And while he may not be offering “the moon” in his budgetary vision through 2021 (think Cain’s 9-9-9), he might as well be offering “the world” by promising high tax cuts and increased defense spending, leaving an untouched Medicare and Social Security while claiming it balance the federal budget. Short of reverting to “dynamic scoring” on the tax cuts, that leaves Medicaid and every non-defense discretionary program with a pretty short stick. Such a proposal necessarily means the brunt of budgetary “sacrifice” will fall on the working poor, elderly and children. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t want to go into details.