As the Republican presidential hopefuls auger toward the finish line in what will probably result in the nomination of Mitt Romney, it seems the candidates, in straining to hurl things at one another and President Obama, perpetuate something that I like to call (with apologies to Rachel Maddow) the GOP's "War on Math."
Full disclosure: I'm an Obama fan. I don't see eye-to-eye with the president on everything, and I'd like to state for the record that good ideas also come from smart Republicans--although I have seen few so far from GOP presidential candidates.
I give Obama credit for trying to find common ground in his early years in office, even if it was naive to think he could get any help from GOP members who stated categorically that their No. 1 goal was to see him removed from the White House.
I also remember the last guy. And I remember what happened to the country under the watch of a GOP president and GOP Congress. I remember the unnecessary war (and war spending) and the deficits, even as the economy was growing, because of a misguided, ideological need to cut taxes (rammed through Congress using budget reconciliation, lest you who rail against "Obamacare" forget) instead of continuing to shore up the country's balance sheet.
Both sides of the aisle have good ideas. The (somewhat incomplete) Ryan budget introduced this week has options we should consider: a flatter tax code, fewer behavior-related tax subsidies and items designed to shore up social safety-net programs.
As we recover (hopefully) from the Great Recession, we should see a tightening of our collective belt, an increase in revenues (both from general growth and higher effective rates on people who can afford them) and proposals that restructure how we deal with skyrocketing health-care costs.
But before we can get to those solutions--if we ever can--we've got to clean up the rules of the game. It all comes back to this idea that you can have your own opinions, but you can't have your own facts.
Like this one: "Obama has added more to the debt than all other presidents combined!"
This is not true. Since Obama took office, roughly $5 trillion has been added to the debt. That's a lot--no doubt--but it doesn't represent more than all other presidents have added to the debt, which stands at roughly $15.5 trillion, with $10.7 trillion or so owed to the public. (The rest is intra-governmental debt owed to the Social Security and other trust funds.)
And blaming most of that $5 trillion on Obama is disingenuous at best.
An analysis by The Washington Post, in conjunction with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, found that programs George W. Bush championed while in office--tax cuts, defense and special war spending, Medicare expansion, and other spending programs--added about $5.07 trillion to the debt.
Obama's spending programs--stimulus spending and stimulus tax cuts, non-defense spending and health-care reform--will have added about $983 billion to the debt by the year 2017, which would be the end of his (not yet realized) second term.
As Ezra Klein writes in the piece, "When Obama entered office, the Bush tax cuts were already in place and two wars were ongoing. Is it fair to blame Obama for war costs four months after he was inaugurated, or tax collections 10 days after he took office?"
What's even more interesting about this question is the context in which it's raised--the country has added to the debt, in part, because the Great Recession saw revenues plunge from 2008 to 2011.
Why? Because most people and companies were making less money, thus paying less in taxes. (Math again.)
But during that same time, mandatory spending (social programs, Medicare, defense spending) continued to go up at the same time that Obama implemented some extraordinary stimulus spending--and additional tax cutting as stimulus.
So, with less money coming in and more money going out (with roughly 20 percent of it due to a swipe of the President's pen), deficits increased.
One prominent school of thought in economics suggests that deficits should increase during recessions, as the government adds spending on infrastructure investments to keep employment at reasonable levels. (Arguably, we didn't do enough of this in 2008, although in hindsight, the deficit burden already in place from the Bush administration might have meant a smaller stimulus was all we could "afford.")
Want a little silver lining? One of the few advantages that the country has experienced over the course of the Great Recession is that the interest the government pays for the money it borrows is ridiculously low right now. So low, in fact, that the amount of interest dollars the government paid on its debt in 2011 was about the same it paid in 2006, even though that debt principal has doubled.
Imagine if your new credit-card rates were so low that you were actually lowering your monthly payments by rolling an older, higher-rate card over to the lower one, again and again. That's been one side effect of the spending and borrowing to get us through this recession: We've gotten a much better deal on the money we've been borrowing. That won't last forever--and, in fact, it could change quickly--but it's given us some breathing room.
So what's next? As we plunge deeper into the election season, let's try to start from this simple place: Deficit spending is bad, but it's tough to avoid during recessions, and it hasn't been as bad as some like to pretend.
From here, we need good ideas about how to keep the economy on a growth path, how to raise revenues to pay off those debts and how to trim fat from the budget without seriously curtailing growth or devastating the safety net.
We will have differing opinions on how best to do that, but the best ideas will come when people decide to start with actual facts, not lies worthy of a chain email.