Vox’s Newest Bad Calculator

Let me preface this post by saying that I am a fan of Vox.com. Why wouldn’t I be? I’m a middle-class urban left-winger who studied political science in college and reads central bank research papers for fun. Also, Vox has some clever writers and a lot of good content, and their work to make academic research more comprehensible to non-academics is admirable.

However, that does not let them off the hook for another very bad piece of gimmickry. In fact, it makes the said gimmickry much worse, because they clearly have writers and editors who understand economics who should have stopped these silly projects.

I talked about their tax calculator a couple of weeks ago and explained that only showing the taxation side of the ledger is a highly misleading view of fiscal policy implications.

Well, they’ve done it again, and it’s just as bad. This calculator allows you to decide which government programs to cut in order to hit Ted Cruz and Donald Trump’s comically large austerity targets.

They’ve made a similar mistake with this calculator as they did with the last one. The tax calculator treated only one side of the impacts of fiscal policy; this cuts calculator gives a static view of a dynamic and interconnected set of choices.

What does this mean? Government spending goes somewhere—even if you think cash transfers, for example, are bad and create disincentives to work (which is a dubious viewpoint in light of some recent evidence), people do actually spend that money. Or, to take Ronald Reagan’s classic dog-whistling example, the “Welfare Queens” driving Cadillacs would have stimulated the domestic auto industry, if they had existed.

The result of this is that cutting government spending is not a free lunch. Taking this money out of the economy reduces GDP (for the five people who still believe in expansionary fiscal contraction, I refer you to this chart). For the terrible, awful, no-good, very-bad calculator, that means every time you cut, you reduce tax revenue, and this forces you to cut further.

If we lived in a world of static and independent policy choices, Trump or Cruz could cut roughly 5% out of GDP each year from the government budget and get it into balance. In reality, cutting 5% of GDP from government spending would send the US into an austerity-induced recession, with obvious knock-on effects for tax revenues. Any attempt to dig out of the fiscal hole solely through cutting will make the hole deeper.

Take the A Train—Outta Heah

In the last week America’s remaining certifiable egomaniacs Presidential candidates have descended on the center of the known universe and current source of these dispatches, New York City. As far as I can find, this is the first time that New York will ever hold a standalone competitive primary for both parties, which makes this campaigning phase notable and unique.

While it may be nice to have national politicians paying attention to New York for something besides fundraising or a UN meeting, it also means we are currently being treated to a classic aspect of political behavior which, while not new, seems to have taken on a more distasteful veneer in the era of professional campaigns. This ploy is the Attempt To Fake Being A Regular Person: the construction by campaigns and candidates of situations that make the single human to whom they hope to deliver control over the Executive Branch, the armed forces, the nuclear arsenal, and all of the duties, privileges, and trappings of the Presidency seem like a Regular Person.

This should be a folly. None of the remaining candidates (or, in fact, any of the remotely plausible candidates in any Presidential election for more than half a century) live anything like a “normal” American life—if we could even pretend to construct or imagine such “normalcy”. Some of their work is certainly reflective of tasks that most Americans carry out in a professional setting—meeting with colleagues to work through issues, reading and writing emails, trying to keep projects moving—and there are similarities in their personal lives—they do have to eat and sleep, I presume—but much is still very different. I would venture a guess that the share of Americans who are constantly surrounded by armed guards (who may or may not enjoy the wholesome company of Colombian prostitutes) is probably between 0.01% 0.001%.* It’s very uncommon, and reflective of a life that’s quite different from the lives of just about everyone they seek to represent. Politicians are also disproportionately at the top end of the income distribution, to pick out another example totally at random.

Plenty of Americans are unintelligent or ill-informed (the dear reader may be interested to know that at least half of Americans are of below-average intelligence), but it’s probably fair to say that most people implicitly understand that national politicians live in a different sphere from the rest of us. As a result, politicians and their campaign teams know that they have to work to seem like Regular People. Talk like Regular People do—our President, for example, has been guilty of this at times—and say that you do “normal” stuff.

This conveniently, and long-windedly—I didn’t call this blog “Brief Notes Across the Pond” for a reason—brings us to this week’s guilty parties: the junior Senator from Vermont and the last Secretary of State. Bernie Sanders kicked off our display of thoroughly avoidable and embarrassing Attempts To Fake Being A Regular Person by telling the New York Daily News that he had taken the subway “about a year ago”. Any attempt to verify this statement, Sir Humphrey Appleby would have said, is sufficient to cause severe epistemological problems: Sanders quickly revealed that he thought the subway was still accessed using tokens. We could easily put this down to the imperfect memory of a busy politician, but the following back-and-forth with Sanders suggests strongly that he was trying, and failing impressively, to burnish his reputation as a Regular Person.

Not to be outdone in shameless Attempts To Fake Being a Regular Person, Hillary Clinton’s team organized an elaborate Subway journey for the arduous and interminable distance from Yankee Stadium-161 Street to 170th Street in the Bronx. Clinton took 4 or 5 swipes and about 30 seconds to pass through the turnstile, had security and media take up a decent portion of the train car who stopped at least one person from getting off the train at 167th, and had the gall to talk to a stranger wearing headphones (of all her offenses, this is by far the worst). If there were ever any doubt that she is not a Regular Person, she effectively dispelled it during that fifteen-minute jaunt.**

Why do Sanders and Clinton feel the need to lie about or manufacture Regular Person-ness? Do they really think we are stupid enough to think they actually live in relatable ways? (Possibly yes.) They and all of their colleagues should quit while they are way behind. At the same time, the rest of us shouldn’t expect our politicians to be Regular People, but to gather views with attention and empathy and work to make good decisions based on evidence and articulated principles. Hopefully, politicians can represent us effectively without being representative. But more on that another time.

If you’ve made it all the way to the end of this, head over to YouTube for some Duke Ellington.

*This means between 30,000 and 3,000, which I’d suggest is not an unreasonable guess on the basis of exactly no data.

**Any discussion of subway riding stunts by politicians would not be complete without mention of Mayor Bloomberg’s elaborate car-to-express maneuver.