Reason.com editor Nick Gillespie has a response to my item gently pointing out his mathematical illiteracy and that of his co-author Veronique de Rugy. A good chunk of it seems to be tonal posturing whose purpose is to show that Gillespie is cooler than me. I'll stipulate the point, because:
1. Everybody is cooler than me, and
2. Gillespie wears a black shirt and black leather jacket in virtually all his public appearances, and obviously you can't get cooler than that.
As for the substance, Gillespie offers very little. Let me review my main point. He wrote an article, with de Rugy, suggesting that the federal budget could be balanced by 2020 without raising taxes from their Bush-era levels merely by cutting spending by 3.6% a year. He illustrated this with a video portraying the federal budget as a piece of pork (get it?) divided into ten slices, each slice representing a year. In the video, Gillespie slices off a small bit from each year, representing the tiny 3.6% of waste that would have to be trimmed.
As I showed, and Gillespie does not deny in his response, the claims he made in the video were false. The plan would require cutting the budget by 3.6% the first year, an additional 3.6% the next year, until the 2020 budget was 24% lower than it would be. In other words, Gillespie's plan would not be slicing one little 3.6% off of each year. It would be slicing one piece off the first year, two pieces off the next year, three pieces off the third, and so on.
Reading Gillespie's response, I don't think he was being deliberately misleading. I think he genuinely does not understand the article he co-authored:
While the Warner Wolf in me wants to say "Let's go to the videotape" (watch above!), let's instead look at the main figure from the piece Veronique and I wrote. This lays out, in pretty clear detail I think, how you can make small, systematic cuts to bring projected total federal outlays in 2020 into line with 19 percent of expected GDP (the amount the CBO says will be in play).
In the above, we lay out what 3.6 percent annual cuts in each of the next 10 budgets would come to if applied across the board to major spending areas (note that debt payments are included in the "other" category).
Right. This... does not reply to my critique at all. And that, honestly, is the closest anything in his article comes to addressing my objection. The vast majority is just word salad.
After another diversion into the totally Republican talking point that revenues never stay for long above 18% -- which I don't need to debunk here because it's utterly unrelated to the dispute at hand -- Gillespie rambles on to a generic libertarian rant:
don't forget that the $1.3 trillion that we're talking about cutting over the next decade comes out of budgets that are projected to increase every year from 2012 on (see above) and that total federal spending over the next decade will come to over $42 trillion. I wonder if Chait is willing to name anyfunctions of the federal government that he thinks we can live without? Maybe the two ongoing wars that his magazine happily supported (at least until recently). Maybe the Medicare prescription drug benefit, which gives relatively wealthy seniors free or reduced-price drugs regardless of ability to pay? Indeed, why not take a longer look at Medicare in toto, a program that former Obama adviser Christina Romer has said wastes 30 percent of its funds?
The passage begins with a factual claim that's simply wrong. The federal budget in 2020, if it continues to provide current services, would spend $5.5 trillion. Balancing the budget in 2020 solely with spending cuts means cutting that by $1.3 trillion -- not over ten years but in 2020. I don't doubt that Gillespie and de Rugy could identify that much in cuts they'd support. My point is that this is not a 3.6% cut. It is a 24% cut. It involves significant changes in the scope of the government, not just trimming tiny bits of waste. The ideological merit of those cuts is not what I'm disputing.
Gillespie wants to rally Team Libertarian to his side by broadening the question into the the wars TNR supported (boo!) and all them wasteful government programs. Gillespie wants this to be a debate between freedom-lovin' rebel Nick Gillespie and Big Government-coddlin', irrational rich people-hatin' Jonathan Chait. It's not. It's a debate between Nick Gillespie and the laws of arithmetic.
Likewise, Gillespie defends his co-author de Rugy's National Review post. In that post, she argued that the Bush tax cuts for the rich did not reduce federal revenue, because the top 1% paid a higher share of federal taxes in 2008 than in 2001. If this voodoo economics were true, and Bush's tax cuts on the rich caused the rich to pay more in taxes, then it would necessarily be true that Bill Clinton's tax hike on the rich would cause the rich to pay a lower share of federal taxes, right? But, in reality, the rich paid 29% of federal taxes in 1993, and 37% in 2000. So clearly de Rugy's statistic does not prove that the Bush tax cuts caused the rich to pay a higher share of federal taxes.
In response, Gillespie offers more hand-waving:
Yes, it's true that the wealthy have been getting a bigger share of income growth for a long time. Nobody disputes that (and indeed, I pointed out as much in my post). But Chait then goes into a "does not compute" spasm: The rich couldn't be paying a higher share under Bush because... because... because... because...
Oh Gale Gordon, oh humanity!
But the rich were paying a bigger share, and what Veronique pointed out was that "the main impact the rate reduction had in the first place was to make the rich pay an even bigger share of taxes that they paid before."
You can argue that the projected $70 billion a year that won't clang in federal coffers over the next couple of years by extending the Bush tax rates is a tragedy because, I don't know, we need to keep waging war in Afghanistan or buying obsolete weapons systems or bailing out big banks or repaving highways and extending stimulus funds that have worked out so well.
I don't know how to wade through this word salad and extract an argument. He begins by restating something I explained in my previous response. I realize that the rich paid a higher share in federal taxes in 2008 than in 2001. As I said, this is entirely because of a long secular trend toward greater concentration of income. It does not prove that the Bush tax cuts caused this result. Indeed, de Rugy's voodoo economics hypothesis is disproven by the fact that the share of taxes paid by the rich rose even faster following Clinton's tax hikes on the rich. Gillespie does not address this at all. He simply retreats to sputtering about government programs he hates.
Like I said, I obviously have different ideological preferences than Gillespie and other libertarians. But he isn't serving his audience very well. He's a pretty good writer, but he doesn't understand these issues at all. He thinks he can make up for his lack of understanding by relying on a co-author who, by dint of her total fealty to libertarian dogma and the ability to throw around a few numbers, has him convinced she knows what she's talking about. In reality she's a total hack. I really advise Gillespie to confine himself to subjects he understands (motorcycles? picking up chicks with a snap of the fingers?) and find a fiscal writer who is able to make the libertarian case from factual premises.