Conan the Deceiver

SYNOPSIS: On the sixth day (of the week), Krugman terminates Ahnuld for his true lies during the total recall of Gray Davis. Hopefully, this predator of a column will cause enough collateral damage so that it will be the end of days for the campaign of this running man (maybe I should use the eraser on this synopsis)

The key moment in Arnold Schwarzenegger's Wednesday press conference came when the bodybuilder who would be governor brushed aside questions with the declaration, "The public doesn't care about figures." This was "fuzzy math" on steroids Mr. Schwarzenegger was, in effect, asserting that his celebrity gives him the right to fake his way through the election. Will he be allowed to get away with it?

Reporters were trying to press Mr. Schwarzenegger for the specifics so obviously missing from his budget plans. But while he hasn't said much about what he proposes to do, the candidate has nonetheless already managed to say a number of things that his advisers must know are true lies.

Even Mr. Schwarzenegger's description of the state economy is pure fantasy. He claims that the state is bleeding jobs because of its "hostile environment" toward business, and that California residents groan under an oppressive tax burden: "From the time they get up in the morning and flush the toilet, they're taxed."

One look at the numbers tells you that his story is fiction. Since the mid-1990's California has added jobs considerably faster than the nation as a whole. And while the state has been hit hard by the technology slump, it has done no worse than other parts of the country. A recent study found that California's tech sector had actually weathered the slump better than its counterpart in Texas. Meanwhile, California isn't a high-tax state: through the 1990's, state and local taxes as a share of personal income more or less matched the national average, and with the recent plunge in revenue they're now probably below average.

What is true is that California's taxes are highly inequitable: thanks to Proposition 13, some people pay ridiculously low property taxes. Warren Buffett, supposedly acting as Mr. Schwarzenegger's economic adviser, offered the perfect example: he pays $14,401 in property taxes on his $500,000 home in Omaha, but only $2,264 on his $4 million home in Orange County. But the candidate quickly made it clear that Mr. Buffett should stick to the script and not mention inconvenient facts.

When Mr. Schwarzenegger threw his biceps into the ring, he seemed to think that, like George W. Bush, he could adopt a what-me-worry approach to budget deficits. "The first thing that you have to do is not worry about should we cut the programs or raise the taxes and all those things," he told Fox News. Then someone must have explained to him that a governor, unlike a president, can't just decide that red ink isn't a problem. In fact, one reason Gray Davis is so unpopular is that, unlike the challengers, he has actually had to take painful steps to close the budget gap. Although news reports continue, inexplicably, to talk about a $38 billion deficit, the projected gap for next year is only $8 billion.

So Mr. Schwarzenegger now says that he will balance the budget, while bravely declaring that he is against any unpleasant measures this might involve. He wants to roll back the increase in the vehicle license fee, which was crucial to the state's recent fiscal progress, and he says he won't propose any offsetting tax increases. And while these promises mean that he must come up with large spending cuts, he refuses to say what he will cut. His excuse is that his advisers couldn't make "heads or tails" of the California budget.

Please. The details are complicated, but the broad picture isn't. Education dominates the budget, accounting for more than half of general fund spending. Medical care dominates the rest. The last remaining big chunk is corrections.

Yet the candidate says he won't touch education. Sharp cuts in medical spending would be not only cruel but foolish, since in many cases they would mean losing federal matching funds. And prison spending is largely determined by the state's "three strikes" law. In short, he's not leveling with voters: there's no way to balance the budget while honoring all his promises.

But the candidate says that specifics don't matter, that the public just wants someone "tough enough." Does he really think that voters will confuse him with the characters he plays?

So here's the question: Can a celebrity candidate muscle his way into public office without ever being held accountable for his statements?

Originally published in The New York Times, 8.22.03