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Saturday, October 27, 2012

Where do we stand?

With ten days to go, it seems pretty certain that the election will be decided by a very narrow margin--one very comparable, indeed, to George W. Bush's re-election in 2004, when the state of Ohio provided the margin of victory. That is the better case scenario: the worse case scenario is an election similar to 2000, complete with recounts, court fights, and a Republican legislature or two deciding pass laws awarding their electoral vote to Mitt Romney in defiance of the will of the electorate. Obama is more likely to win, but only to the extent that a favorite is more likely to win the World Series or the Super Bowl or the Wimbledon final. What the election will settle, however, no one has any idea.

Barack Obama won a stunning victory four years ago because so many of us believed he might put the United States on a different path. He is in danger of losing now because he has not been able to do so. The stimulus moderated the recession somewhat, but it ran out some time ago. The bailouts saved, but did not revive or transform, the auto and financial industries. Income disparities are getting worse, not better, and the rich are paying the same low taxes they were paying then. Worse, the Democratic House Obama carried into office is gone. Obama, in sharp contrast to Harry Truman, has neither made attacks on the Republican Congress--the most irresponsible in history--a centerpiece of his campaign, nor even asked the American people to elect a Democratic one. In that as in so many other respects, he has followed in the footsteps of Bill Clinton, who never seemed to care, after 1994, whether he regained control of the Congress, and who in fact never did. It only just occurred to me, oddly, that Bill Clinton was in many ways the President that Barack Obama wanted to be, and it's not surprising that he appointed so many veterans of his Administration.

The United States was ripe for a great change in 2008, but only the Republican Party was committed to bringing it about, by cutting taxes, cutting back government,2 and increasing corporate power still further. Their only real setback on those fronts has been the health care law, which is not yet in effect. They have also single-mindedly focused on their possible return to power without regard to the welfare of the electorate. Of all the appalling, pathetic things we have heard in this campaign, nothing quite compares to Mitt Romney's complaints that Barack Obama has not been able to work with legislators on the other side of the aisle. This indeed is typical of Republicans, who have been eviscerating government and simultaneously complaining about its performance for years. Romney did work well with the Democratic Massachusetts legislature because they, as Democrats, believed in government and wanted to accomplish things. Ted Kennedy blessed Romneycare because he hoped--rightly as it turned out--that it might become a model for national legislation. Romney viewed it as his ticket to national prominence. Now he is committed to its repeal.

I thought, as I have said, that if Obama won handily and even changed the balance of power in Congress, the Republicans might have to rethink their attitude. Now that that possibility looks very unlikely, I'm afraid we have nothing to look forward to but more of the gridlock of the last two years--or worse. The Republicans in the House might well decide not to raise the debt ceiling sufficiently now--what have they got to lose? They surely will continue obstructing every Obama appointment that they can, and I wouldn't be surprised if they filibustered his next Supreme Court choice. There will be no chance of the campaign finance reform that is desperately needed. The new system is already, it would seem, self-sustaining.

And if Romney wins?

I saw about an hour last night of the Frontline episode tracing the two candidates' lives in parallel. The segment on Romney's tenure as Governor was enough to bring tears to my eyes. He was a genuine moderate Republican who, for whatever reason, worked for the public good. The possibility that he might rediscover his inner moderate can't be ruled out, but I can't believe in it. Romney as governor was appealing to his constituency. Now his constituency is the Republican Party, and so it shall remain. He could be Andrew Johnson in reverse, reaching across the aisle to make reasonable compromises on various issues, but I would be amazed if that happened. Grover Norquist has already defined his role as signing the legislation that the Tea Party house has already passed, and I wouldn't expect him to deviate from it. Today's Washington Post, meanwhile, reports that the Republicans have so effectively gerrymandered the districts of their new members in so many states that the Democrats have no chance of regaining the House, even though they need less than 30 seats to do so and they are leading, if I am not mistaken, in generic ballot polls for the House. There is no parallel to the take-no-prisoners style of Republican politics in the Karl Rove era in the rest of American history.

The Democrats at this point are far more certain of holding on to the Senate than Obama is of holding the White House, but a Democratic Senate would not, in my opinion, block very much of what Romney and a Republican House would do. It isn't in them. We live in a country of increasing corporate power, centered in the energy, health insurance, and financial sectors. The public faces a choice between a little regulation and none at all. The economy has deep long-term structural problems which no one has any idea how to address. The foreign scene is really quite amazingly quiet, nothing at all like the situation that was emerging four years into the Great Depression in 1932. There is no emerging Hitler, but sadly, there is no emerging FDR either. In the coming weeks I will try to say more about the nature of our new country and our new world, including both its strengths--which do exist--and its weaknesses.

Monday, October 22, 2012

George McGovern, 1922-2012

The obituaries for George McGovern, who died on Sunday, are generally leading with his catastrophic defeat at the hands of Richard Nixon in 1972. This is unfortunate, not only because McGovern was a genuinely great man, but because not only that defeat, but also his entire career, say so much about what the United States has gone through in the last fifty years--little of it very good. McGovern was in fact a product of the New Deal and one of the best exemplars of the GI generation in politics. Horrible events--specifically, the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and the Watergate scandal--turned him into a national figure and presidential candidate. Meanwhile, a combination of a new style of Republican politics and the Boom generation's disastrous emergence as a political force ended his national political career in 1972. The Reagan electoral revolution then removed him, along with a number of others like him, from the Senate in 1980, and American politics have not been the same since.

McGovern piloted a bomber in the Second World War and earned a doctorate in history, but became a Democratic political activist and a Congressman in South Dakota in the 1950s. The New York Times obit says this morning that he was soundly beaten in his first run for the Senate against long-time Republican leader Karl Mundt in 1960, but this is not true. McGovern was beaten by a margin of 52%-48%, while John F. Kennedy lost the state to Richard Nixon by almost four times as much, 58%-42%. Anti-Catholicism undoubtedly played a role, and when Kennedy called McGovern the next day, he said, "George, I feel terrible about what happened in South Dakota yesterday. I think I cost you the election." Kennedy appointed him director of the Food for Peace program, a typical example of the ethos of the time. Two years later McGovern won another Senate race by less than 1000 votes.. Within six months of taking office he had made a courageous speech on the dangers of nuclear overkill, helping to pave the way for the ratification of the Test Ban Treaty.

I met McGovern late in the summer of 1966, at a dinner party my parents had brought me to in the Georgetown home of Averell Harriman. When the men and women separated after dinner my eyes were opened by an extraordinarily frank discussion of the Vietnam War, which both Harriman and McGovern strongly opposed. McGovern never raised his voice, and spoke more in sorrow than in anger, but he was deeply concerned. Harriman was obviously deeply disturbed by the escalation of the war. Also in attendance was Scoop Jackson of Washington State, a hawk, but the conversation among them all was perfectly cordial, and they shared their concern over the coming midterms, in which the Administration took a terrible beating.

McGovern, like Wayne Morse of Oregon, Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, Frank Church of Idaho, and Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, came from an upper midwest tradition that combined domestic progressivism with skepticism about involvement in foreign lands. All of them opposed Lyndon Johnson's war in Vietnam from the beginning of the conflict, and all were canvassed by leftist activists in late 1967 about a possible primary run. McCarthy answered the call partly because he, unlike Nelson, Morse and McGovern, did not have to run for re-election that year. When McCarthy nearly won the New Hampshire primary, Robert Kennedy entered the race, and had he not been assassinated that June he would have remained the leading liberal standard bearer in the Democratic Party for a long time, and pretty surely the Democratic presidential candidate, if not in 1968 (when I do not think he would have been nominated), then in 1972 or 1976, depending upon his own preference. McGovern's breakthrough into national prominence occurred because the Kennedy people drafted him, in essence, to speak for their delegates in Chicago. Hubert Humphrey was nominated, of course, and McGovern, unlike Eugene McCarthy, immediately endorsed him and then won re-election. McCarthy's erratic behavior during 1968 pretty much ruled him out as a future national candidate, and two Democrats emerged from that turbulent year with a future in national politics: Ed Muskie of Maine, Humphrey's vice-presidential choice, and McGovern, who got the key assignment of reforming the delegate selection rules for the Democratic party in order to make the more responsive to popular opinion.

McGovern, sad to say, may well have won the 1972 nomination because Richard Nixon wanted him to. The dirty tricks campaign that functioned alongside Watergate was designed to bring down Muskie, whom Nixon regarded as the most dangerous candidate, and it may have done just that. White House aid Ken Clawson told a Washington Post reporter that he had written the anonymous letter accusing Muskie's wife of an anti-Canadian slur to the Manchester Union Leader. The accusation found its away into an editorial,. and Muskie was filmed in tears as he tried to defend his wife. His poll numbers began dropping, and McGovern, the candidate of young and enthusiasitc liberals, picked up the slack. Humbert Humphrey could not overcome his association with Lyndon Johnson and his establishment taint, and McGovern emerged as the clear favorite after winning the winner-take-all California primary. So desperate was Humphrey that he tried to overturn the winner-take-all formula at the convention, but clever McGovern strategists foiled his ploy. Then came the selection of Thomas Eagleton as his vice president, the revelation of Eagleton's history of mental illness, McGovern's embarrassing hesitation before dropping him from the ticket, and a horribly embarrassing week in which McGovern desperately sought a replacement, enduring several rejections before settling on Sargent Shriver. Meanwhile, his Boomer volunteers, who had done well in primary states, were showing themselves hopelessly unable to handle a national campaign. Nixon meanwhile had carried off succcessful summits in Beijing and Moscow and won Middle America's (and his own generation's) confidence. McGovern was, of course, swamped, although his percentage of the vote was only 2-3% less than Humphrey's in 1968. The George Wallace vote had now defected to the Republican Party, it has stayed for most of the next 40 years.

I volunteered for the McGovern campaign in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Canvassing the working-class precincts of East Cambridge on several Saturdays, I was encouraged and overjoyed by the outpouring of support for McGovern that I found. Some of them, it turned out, were faking it. The canvass showed a 3-1 victory in prospect for McGovern, and he carried those precincts by a somewhat less impressive margin. Still, Massachusetts voted for him, and I was proud to have been part of the successful segment of his campaign. Had his campaign not imploded and had he managed a respectable showing in defeat, Watergate would undoubtedly have turned him into the favorite in 1976, but that was not to be the case. As it was, he took advantage of Watergate to secure his re-election in 1974 in the midst of a Democratic sweep. But in 1980 he was one of nine Democratic incumbents to lose their seats, including Frank Church of Idaho, Birch E. Bayh of Indiana, Warren Magnuson of Washington, and Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin--all veterans of at least three terms. This was the first national Republican campaign run largely on social issues, and I remember seeing a calm McGovern on election night call for an "antidote" to the new "poison" of Republican propaganda that had put the New Deal and Great Society to bed. We will find out in two weeks whether one has in fact been found.

In 2007, during my first year as a visiting professor here at Williams, I arranged for McGovern to visit the campus. He was fully alert and very much the same man I remembered from decades ago. When I told him that I could not forgive Humphrey for what he had tried to do to him in 1972, he replied, "Well, Hubert wanted to be President more than anything else, and that was his last chance." He compared Iraq and Vietnam and dealt very well with questions, including an abusive one from a gentleman who blamed him for the loss of South Vietnam. I am sure he had faced that accusation many times.

Once upon a time, there was a United States where young men from all sections and yes, all nations, fought in the same war, became well-educated in college, and entered politics to make the world a better place. They didn't always agree, but they worked together and bequeathed a remarkably just society, especially economically, to their chldren--who, as children do, proceeded to squander it. George McGovern was one of the last of those men, and I'm going to miss him.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Conservative punditry

I mentioned last week that reality, and particularly statistical reality, took a beating in the first presidential debate. It didn't do a great deal better in the second one, although President Obama did. But today I want to discuss the most recent columns of two of our leading right wing pundits, David Brooks and George Will Both of them pride themselves on being reasoned intellectuals; both, sadly, are now shilling for the worst aspects of the Republican right.

Brooks's column today is about energy. Al Gore's loss of the Presidency in 2000 apparently convinced energy interests, who for the first time included both the President and Vice President of the United States, to strike while the iron was hot. Some day, if serious history survives long enough, some one will piece together the story of what Dick Cheney's energy task force actually did. It evidently decided on a long term push to develop sources of energy in North America, including both oil and natural gas the latter to be extracted through the new technique of "fracking." In 2003 the Republicans slipped an exemption from EPA regulation for fracking into a law--something I know only thanks to the HBO documentary Gasland. The price of energy has doubled since then, fueling the domestic boom, which has made two states--Oklahoma and North Dakota--islands of prosperity in our depressed economy. One of the best questions in the debate the other night related to Secretary Chiu's statement that it wasn't his job to reduce the price of energy. Both the President and Mitt Romney dodged it completely.

Brooks's column today takes note of our increasing reliance on fossil fuels, but treats it simply as a joke on environmentalists in general and Al Gore in particular. He makes it sound as if the whole shift away from green solutions, which he even claims to favor personally himself, is nothing but another triumph of the free market. He doesn't even mention the environmental consequences of fracking, which in some cases are turning out to be extremely serious. Nor does he suggest that the increasing political activism of energy magnates like the Koch brothers might have anything to do with it. He has the gall to accuse Al Gore of getting rich out of green energy, as if no one has ever gotten rich out of oil and gas. He has nothing to say about the high cost of energy either. In other words, he takes a triumph of right-wing money and right-wing politics and turns it into a simple manifestation of the course of history.

Will's latest,
in my opinion, is even more pathetic. It's an all-out attack on Barack Obama for having made three recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board. He never mentions that the Republican Congress had persistently prevented them from coming to a vote in an effort to make the Wagner Act a dead letter. The President, like Presidents before him--including George W. Bush--took advantage of a technicality to make a recess appointment, even though the Senate was claiming to be in session, a fiction it maintained by having two or three Senators show up every day. Will makes that sound like an impeachable offense. He doesn't care that the Republicans have used this tactic to make it impossible for much of the federal government to function. He has come to hate government, like the Republicans, and he evidently doesn't care what tactics are used to stop it.

Polling is another area in which logic has gone out the window. The Gallup Poll is now owned by an Omaha, Nebraska outfit named Selection Research, and it seems to be functioning as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party. It is showing a big lead for Romney, in complete contrast to virtually every other poll, as Nate Silver has gently pointed out. Yet Drudge headlines it every day, and other Republican sites use it to rally the troops. Romney may win the election, but he ain't going to win the popular vote by 5%. No one, however, is likely to care.

The political landscape is rather confusing today because elite opinion, in my judgment, is out of touch with popular opinion. The right-wing media are far more powerful than the left, and Frank Rich is now convinced the Tea Party is going to control the future of the U.S. (I think he is going too far: free market ideology has won huge victories and will probably hang on to them, but the trend may at least come to a halt soon.) But right-wing Senate candidates are in deep trouble in Maine, Wisconsin (where the Democrat is a gay woman), Ohio, Virginia, and even in Indiana. What we lack is leadership, probably because of the power of money--including energy money--over both parties. That is why we face nothing more than a choice between the lesser of two evils--but make no mistake about it, Obama is the lesser by a considerable margin. If you don't believe me, read this welcome dose of reality, an insider's description of what private equity really is, how it earns its money, and how little Romney's experience will allow him to do for anyone except fellow financiers in private equity. The free pass he has been given for being part of the economic problem never ceases to amaze me.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Modern Academia

I thought I was done for the weekend, but the New York Times ran a remarkable profile of the Dean of the Columbia Business School, Glenn Hubbard, who turns out to be Romney's chief economic adviser and author of many of his economic plans. Professor Hubbard made an appearance in the superb documentary Inside Job a couple of years ago which you can watch here. He wasn't quite as entertaining as the Harvard economist Professor Mishkin, who had to explain how he got paid a healthy five-figure sum some years back for praising the brilliant, cutting-edge banking system in Iceland not too long before it bankrupted the entire country, but he was still one of the stars of the show, and the article got me thinking about modern academia.

We easily forget that the modern university is less than 150 years old. Before the late nineteenth century, universities were primarily religious: they existed to investigate the eternal mysteries of life. The early state universities in the Unite States broke that mold, but by the late nineteenth century a new ethos had emerged: universities were centers of free inquiry, developing knowledge for the benefit of mankind. To make this model work, they had to be independent, operating with their own funds. They also needed faculty dedicated to knowledge for knowledge's sake and motivated primarily by the joy of their work. After the Second World War universities expanded exponentially. Take it from me, a man who has spent his entire adult life in higher education: there are not enough smart people motivated by the joy of their work to staff today's universities. And because they do not form a critical mass, to borrow a phrase from this week's Supreme Court arguments, such people have become a rarity in university life.

Today's universities have an insatiable appetite for cash, and thereby have to cater, in dozens of ways, to those who can provide it. Quite a few, including my own alma mater Harvard, have turned their endowments into hedge funds and thus experienced both the pre-2007 boom and the disastrous 2008 crash. (To be fair, Harvard's endowment just reported a flat year, indicating that its new manager, Janet Mendillo, has in fact adopted much more conservative strategies.) Dr. Hubbard's career is another example of how they function as one side of a triangle that also includes the financial services sector and government.

Glenn Hubbard served in the Bush Administration as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, where he helped design and pass the Bush tax cuts, making billions for Wall Street. After two years on that job he returned to Columbia, pulling in hundreds of thousands a year as a consultant to various financial services firms. He also co-authored a paper on the magic of credit default swaps and how they had helped make recessions milder (which they have not been for decades) and allowed banks to make more loans. Shortly thereafter, of course, those swaps played a key role in the worst financial crisis since 1929.

The Times story plays up another angle. Among the firms Professor Hubbard consulted for was Kohl, Kravis and Roberts, and Henry Kravis, one of its founders, recently donated $100 million to the Columbia Business School, which he attended, for a new building. One of Dr. Hubbard's colleagues is quoted in the piece to the effect that this could be seen as payback for the much larger sums that the tax cuts Dr. Hubbard helped put through under George W. Bush made for KK & R. Mr. Kravis does have genuine philanthropic impulses--not too long ago, he contributed money for a new dormitory at his high school and mine, Loomis Chafee, whose faculty I am sure had no means of returning the favor so extravagantly. Still, the whole story is enough to give one pause. At Harvard, Professor Niall Ferguson also frequently gives well-paid talks to hedge funds and is now, as I have noted, strongly advocating the election of Mitt Romney. I have no idea whether this will result in any bequests to Harvard or not.

The financial services industry owns government and a good deal of academia, especially the part that has the most to say about itself. All this would have been grist for a good Democratic populist campaign, but the Obama Administration is only marginally less tied into the financial community than the Bush Administration was or a Romney Administration would be. Perhaps younger Democrats should take note. Obama's friendly attitude hasn't helped him at all with Wall Street in his re-election contest; given the choice between a Republican and a Republican, to paraphrase Harry Truman, the Street will take the Republican every time. In any case, my poor old profession hasn't been playing the independent role society needs it to play--and it shows.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Is the election slipping away?

Nate Silver hasn't said so yet, but the Romney surge since the Presidential debate surely ranks as one of the most remarkable turnarounds since sophisticated polling began. It's true that George H. W. Bush trailed Michael Dukakis by large margins in early trial heats, and it's also true that Hubert Humphrey came from 10-15 points down to finish in a virtual tie with Richard Nixon, but those shifts, while larger, took longer. Obama never had a lead comparable to Dukakis's early lead or Nixon's but he had been gaining critical ground steadily since the conventions. As of this morning, Silver shows Romney now leading in Florida, Virginia, and Colorado, and Obama still projected to win but by the narrowest of electoral college margins. Obama's chances of winning are now about the same as a first-place team's chance of winning against a club with a record of below .500, and no one with any brains would bet his mortgage on such a game. I am inclined to believe that any genuine return to more domestic tranquility depends upon not just an Obama victory, but a comfortable one that would have forced the Republicans to rethink their role in American political life. That prospect is fading.

Regular readers know that I had in fact been rather pessimistic about this election ever since the middle of 2010 (see the entry of July 5 of that year), when I realized that the Republicans had seized the ideological initiative once again and that President Obama was failing to put together a new majority. The twenty-five years from the mid-1970s onward had created a new America by 2000, and George W. Bush had accelerated the change. Obama had not, like Franklin Roosevelt, called for a drastic change of course, because he, who had risen from relatively modest origins to the elite through the educational system, believed in the existing order, as Roosevelt, a patrician from birth, had not. He had staked his political future upon the performance of the economy as he found it, revived with a massive infusion of credit from the Fed and from a short-term stimulus which expired just in time to stop contributing to the recovery before he had to face the voters again. He spent the rest of his political capital on a complex health insurance reform that would not come into effect until after his re-election, and that became an easy target for opposition propaganda. During the next year--from July 2010 until July 2011--he tried and failed to reach bipartisan compromises with a Republican Party determined not to let him accomplish a single thing. He has essentially declined to play the role of Harry Truman (who also lost the Congress two years after coming into office) and call out the Republicans regarding their utterly obstructionist behavior. Indeed, he apparently feels it would be bad politics even to ask the voters to elect a Democratic Congress. In spite of all this, he seemed on his way to a relatively comfortable re-election just two weeks ago, based upon his general likeability, the extreme Republican positions on social issues, and Romney's 47% comments, which should have ended the contest on the spot. Obama inexplicably decided not to make those comments and Romney's record at Bain Capital the focus of the first debate. He did not even mention them. He has paid the price.

This morning I went to the Williams College concert hall to hear veteran journalist Hedrick Smith discuss his new book, Who Stole the American Dream? Smith appears to have broken some new historical ground, tracing the business offensive against the welfare state back to the late 1970s and telling the whole story in some detail. Something else, however, profoundly depressed me about the talk. The hall was packed--but there was hardly a person there under 60, and only three undergraduates, in the crowd. I can only conclude that the elite higher education system has for the last few decades failed to teach its students that issues of economic justice are important. It was easier to do that, perhaps, 45 years ago during my own college days, not only because the New Deal tradition was very much alive, but also because we were paying less than 1/3 of what today's students do (adjusted for inflation) and the only professors who got rich in those days did so by writing best-sellers (the names Samuelson and Galbraith, both liberal economists, come to mind.) For decades now students have been getting an earful about the inequities of race, gender, and sexual orientation, but also, to the extent that they get any economics at all, large doses of free-market orthodoxy. That is the great paradox of the last forty years: the combination of greater personal freedom and greater economic freedom. Whether or not they had to go together, the fact remains that they did, and the picture is not likely to change too much no matter what happens on election day, except insofar as a Romney victory and a new round of tax and budget cuts will plunge us deeper into depression once again.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Innumeracy at the highest levels

Barack Obama evidently lost the first debate Wednesday night, although it will take a few more days to measure the damage in the polls accurately. So far, according to the data on fivethirtyeight.com, very incomplete data suggests that he has lost a couple of points in swing states. I must confess that I was among the few Americans watching who did not feel that Obama was taking a beating, although I did think Romney was doing somewhat better than expected. One reason was that I didn't see how any American except an extreme partisan, regardless of education, could take the discussion very seriously--especially when the candidates used numbers. That, I had decided well before poor Jim Lehrer said goodnight, was going to be the theme of my discussion, and so it is.

Politicians have been arguing about budgets at least since Franklin Roosevelt, and they argued about them constantly in my youth--but in those days, citizens could follow the discussion. Most educated Americans, it seems to me, had some idea of what the federal budget was--in fiscal 1965, I remember, it was almost exactly $100 billion. (Yes, that was a long time ago.) More critically, when politicians talked about a tax cut or a budget increase, they discussed its estimated value over the next fiscal year. During the Graham-Rudman deficit reduction discussions in the late 1980s it seems to me everyone talked quite specifically about a series of annual cuts. The turning point, I think, was in the elder Bush's Administration, when he put forth a "$500 billion deficit reduction plan," a figure which referred to the next five years. That trend has continued to the extent that no one has any idea any more what the figures thrown around by Presidential candidates mean.

Since I want to do something about this problem this morning as well as identify with it, let's begin with a few basic facts. The 2012 federal budget, covering the fiscal year that ended last week, anticipated $2.47 trillion in revenues and $3.73 trillion in expenditures, leaving a deficit of $1.3 trillion. Please try to keep those figures in mind as we look at some of the things the two candidates said during the debate.

The figure that we heard most often during the debate came from Mitt Romney: that the President "supports taking $716 billion out of [Medicare]." Now if you read that last paragraph with any care, you immediately must have realized that something is very wrong somewhere, because although Medicare is an expensive program, it doesn't soak up 20% of the federal budget, and even if it did, a $716 billion cut would mean the elimination of Medicare, which the President obviously is not proposing. (Medicare spending for this year is in fact projected at $484 billion.) But it turns out that the letter from the Congressional Budget Office to John Boehner from which that figure comes, which tried to estimate the impact of repealing Obamacare, expected repeal to increase payments from Medicare by $716 billion over a ten-year period. So the actual annual figure is about $72 billion a year, which is a 15% reduction. But that ain't all. The CBO explained that, under Obamacare, about three-quarter of those cuts will come out of Medicare advantage plans--that is, Medicare-funded HMOs, which have turned out to be considerably more expensive than regular Medicare--and reimbursements to hospitals, most of which are now profit-making enterprises that do very well out of Medicare. And none of the savings are going to come out of payments to physicians, as far as I can see. This is part of Republicanism 101: when Democrats try to take the profiteering out of a popular program, they are accused of cutting it. Meanwhile, Mitt in the midst of this discussion mentioned, "But my experience -- my experience the private sector typically is able to provide a better product at a lower cost." If there's one thing every concerned citizen ought to know nowadays, it's that Medicare is the cheapest health insurance program there is, which is why every single Republican refused to include a Medicare-for-all public option in Obamacare.

Now just to show that I don't believe President Obama is innocent of the same sort of nonsense, let's look at his favorite number: Mitt Romney's $5 trillion tax cut. "Governor Romney's central economic plan," he said," calls for a $5 trillion tax cut -- on top of the extension of the Bush tax cuts -- that's another trillion dollars -- and $2 trillion in additional military spending that the military hasn't asked for. That's $8 trillion." Once again, a quick look at my summary paragraph above is enough to prove that something is very wrong somewhere, since total federal tax revenues for the fiscal year that just ended were about half of that. It has taken my quite a while to figure out where that $5 trillion figure might have come from.

The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center has analyzed Romney's tax policies as thoroughly as it could, although any definite answers are impossible because Romney refuses to specify the deductions he wants to end. They do find that he has proposed substantial cuts in rates for most Americans that will have an important impact on revenue. They found that if we do indeed extend the Bush tax cuts, as President Obama agreed to do in 2011, that Romney's rate cuts would cost the Federal government an additional $480 billion a year by 2015. That's about 20% of current revenue and roughly one-third of the current deficit. It would appear that Obama is using the same algorithm in this case as Romney did on Medicare, and giving the figure for a ten-year period (the cost of Romney's tax cuts would grow, presumably, as the GDP and potential revenues increased.) But, of course, he never said so, making the figure meaningless.

It's worth noting, by the way, that a bipartisan reliance on meaningless figures is bound to help the Republicans, because their proposals are so much more fiscally irresponsible (as they have been since 1980) and out of touch with reality. If Romney had to accuse Obama (dubiously as we have seen) of cutting Medicare by 15% a year, while Obama countered that Romney wanted to cut total federal revenues by 20% a year and thus increase the deficit by about 33%, Americans would be much better served. And there's really no reason why the media couldn't start using annual figures even if the candidates refused to do so.

Romney's next line, however, has been even harder to run down--and you all know that I don't give up easily. Here are his comments on the effects of Obamacare.

"And, unfortunately, when -- when -- when you look at Obamacare, the Congressional Budget Office has said it will cost $2,500 a year more than traditional insurance. So it's adding to cost. And as a matter of fact, when the president ran for office, he said that, by this year, he would have brought down the cost of insurance for each family by $2,500 a family. Instead, it's gone up by that amount. So it's expensive. Expensive things hurt families. So that's one reason I don't want it."

When one searches for "Obamacare $2,500 CBO," as I did, one discovers that this has become a new article of faith in the Republican blogosphere, one that Romney has not scrupled to preach himself. I found this, for instance, in a Tea Party blog.

"The CBO previously had blown apart another Obama promise – that that his health care plan would save families $2500 in premium expense. A July 2012 analysis concluded that ObamaCare will actually increase premium cost by $2400 – a $4900 difference in the wrong direction for American families!"

I then went to the CBO Study which the blogger linked. That study has nothing to do with premium costs for average families. It's about the net impact of the Supreme Court's decision on the costs of Obamacare, which mainly involve fewer people receiving Medicaid (because states are no longer forced to expand it) and more people therefore being required to buy their own insurance or pay a penalty. The figure $2400 does not appear anywhere in the study.

What has been noted widely is that the average employee share of a family plan has increased $800 a year in the last four years--but obviously that can't be charged to Obamacare, which isn't even in effect yet, and it's only 1/3 of the figure that the Republicans are throwing around. I'm still offering a free copy of any one of my books to anyone who can plausibly explain where they are getting that figure.

Romney wasn't through with Obamacare. "You've raised them [taxes] by $1 trillion under Obamacare," he said, and I can't explain that one either. Of course we know enough now to assume that he meant $100 billion a year, but that same CBO study estimates that the penalty for not buying insurance and other tax changes under the plan will bring in just $50 billion a year, not $100 billion. (We know now that the penalty is officially a tax, of course, because the Supreme Court said so.) How Romney doubled that figure is a mystery.

"That's how we cut a trillion dollars of spending that wasn't advancing that cause," President Obama remarked at one point. I assume he meant $100 billion a year too, but I have no idea what cuts he was talking about.

I still expect the President to be re-elected, but I still don't see how this is going to help the country move forward very much. This is one of the reasons: thirty years of utterly politicized propaganda and declining American education have made it impossible for Presidential candidates sensibly to discuss the problems that we face. No one could have learned anything useful from that debate. The truth is out there, but you have to be awfully persistent to find it. Now let's see who can claim the free book.