SYNOPSIS: Forget who has the better style-- Bush's economics are bad news and worse arithmetic.
Did you know that if Al Gore is elected president, and his economic plan is put into effect, 2.3 million Americans will die next year? Supercilious Washington insiders may try to confuse you by pointing out that even if Mr. Gore isn't elected, 2.3 million Americans will die — that next year's mortality rate has nothing to do with who wins the election. But you can deal with that by chanting "No fuzzy math!" until the election is over.
No, George W. Bush hasn't blamed Mr. Gore for American mortality. But he's done something comparable. Mr. Gore has been pointing out, correctly, that Mr. Bush has promised $1 trillion in Social Security taxes to two different groups of people — telling young workers that he will allow them to invest the money in personal accounts, while assuring older workers that it will be available to pay for their retirement. So Mr. Bush has responded by charging that Mr. Gore's Social Security plan will add no less than $40 trillion to the national debt.
That seems like an awfully big number. It turns out to be an estimate of the total value of payments from the general government budget to Social Security, including interest, that will take place over the next 50 years. And I could bore you by explaining why that number is meaningless.
The really amazing thing, however, is that the number has nothing to do with Mr. Gore. It's true that Social Security will need transfers from general revenue if Mr. Gore's plan is put into effect. But it will need just as much money if Mr. Gore's plan isn't put into effect. The only way to reduce the required aid would be to reduce the benefits promised to retirees.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bush has said nothing about reducing benefits. So his plan for Social Security would cost just as much as his opponent's — or rather considerably more, because to honor those contradictory promises he has to find another pot of money somewhere.
Maybe blaming Mr. Gore for future mortality wouldn't have worked; but Mr. Bush's advisers seem to think that blaming him for the entire future liabilities of the Social Security system will, or at least can serve temporarily to confuse voters who might otherwise have started to think too clearly about the subject. Only two weeks to go until the election, and we can clean up the mess later, right?
But what a mess it's going to be. Those Social Security payments aren't the only sums being promised to two different groups of people.
Mr. Bush's plans — and, to a lesser extent, Mr. Gore's plans — are based on projections that assume there will be no increase in federal discretionary spending over the next 10 years. But over the last few months, while you weren't looking, Congress went on a bipartisan spending spree — with a cost estimated by both Democratic and Republican analysts at more than $800 billion over the next decade.
How will the next president deal with this bad news? Mr. Gore has a bit of slack in his budget, and has proclaimed that protecting the surplus is his highest priority; maybe he would decide to jettison his unloved and unlovely targeted tax cuts. But Mr. Bush's budget even now adds up thanks only to creative accounting, and he has made it clear that he cannot conceive of anything that would make him renege on his tax-cutting promises. (Did someone say "Read my lips"?)
The odds, then, are that soon — perhaps as soon as next year — those projections of future budget surpluses will have been revised dramatically downward, and longer-term projections will show deficits as far as the statistical eye can see. This will pose real economic risks; it will also be a severe blow to our self-confidence. We will shake our heads at our earlier optimism and wonder what we were thinking.
But the answer, of course, is that we weren't thinking, and in general disapproved of those who did. However the election turns out, the reaction to the debates made it clear that voters have a visceral dislike for candidates who seem intellectual, let alone try to make the electorate do arithmetic.
Indeed, the motto for this election year — and the epitaph for the soon-to-be-departed budget surplus — should be: Real men don't think. Unfortunately, what you refuse to think about can still hurt you.
Originally published in The New York Times, 10.01.00