Jonathan Chait

John Boehner's Tax Gibberish

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John Boehner appeared on the Today Show this morning, and his explanation of why he won't agree to any revenue increase is a perfect encapsulation of the vacuity ofconservative movement thought on this subject.

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Here's the best part of the exchange:

LAUER: Why not use an increase in revenues? Tax hikes to help with that debt problem? What is the evidence that you can present that the tax cuts of the Bush era have actually accomplished their goals?

BOEHNER: Well, what you're – what some are suggesting is that we take this money from people who would invest in our economy and create jobs and we give it to the government. The fact is you can't tax the very people that we expect to invest in our economy and create jobs. Washington doesn't have a revenue problem. Washington has a spending problem.

LAUER: But when you look at – you talk about creating jobs, when the Bush era tax cuts were passed in 2001, unemployment in this country was 4.5%. Today it's at 9%, just down from 10%. So why are the Bush-era tax cuts creating jobs?

BOEHNER: They created about 8 million jobs over the first ten years that they were in existence. We've lost about 5 million of those jobs during this recession. But you can't raise taxes. We can take all of the money from the wealthy and guess what? We'd hardly make a dent in the annual deficit and do nothing about the $14.3 trillion worth of debt.

Lauer begins with a good question. What is the evidence that the Bush tax cut accomplished its goal? Boehner refuses to present any. Indeed, answering this question would lead him into an inescapable minefield. The Bush tax cuts are currently in effect, so any benefits of continuing them must have been felt from 2001 until the present date. That would imply those effects are less than impressive. So instead, Boehner simply restates his position. We can't take money away from job creators. Why not? You just can't. "The fact is," he continues, mistaking opinion for fact, "you can't tax the very people that we expect to invest in our economy and create jobs." You can't tax them at all? Obviously we have to tax them some, right? So then the question is what is the optimal level. I believe recent history suggests that Clinton-era tax levels create no significant harmful incentive effect. Boehner can't even come near this question, because he simply insists that tax the rich is wrong is an absolute sense.

Boehner proceeds from there to trot out the familiar "Washington doesn't have a revenue problem. Washington has a spending problem." line. Here's the reality:

Obviously revenue declined following the Bush tax cuts and stayed well below the Clinton-era trend, even aside from cyclical factors. It's worth noting here that both parties may emphasize the factors in the rise of the debt that favor solutions most amenable to their policy preferences. The difference is that you don't see Democrats categorically deny that spending levels bear any relate to deficits, whereas the opposite belief is an article of faith among Republicans.

Lauer, to his credit, tries again, asking for any evidence the Bush tax cuts created jobs. Boehner replies, "They created about 8 million jobs over the first ten years that they were in existence. We've lost about 5 million of those jobs during this recession." Right. That's a net of 3 million jobs over eight years. That's horrible! 3 million new jobs is, as the Wall Street Journal news staff put it, "the worst track record for job creation since the government began keeping records." Now, Boehner wants to keep track of new jobs under Bush at their highest level. If you want to assign Bush zero responsibility for the economic crisis and measure it from trough to peak, Boehner gets a total of 8 million new jobs. But during the Clinton administration we saw the creation of 23 million new jobs. Doesn't that again suggest that Clinton-era tax rates on the rich might not cripple job creation? Boehner, of course does not say.

For his final talking point, Boehner claims that even if we took all the money the rich had, it wouldn't make a dent in the deficit. Here he's recycling a point made originally by Paul Ryan and then, in much stronger, by the Wall Street Journal's comically inept editorial page. The Journal's claim has been widely cited since, including by GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell. It is utterly false, and seems to be based on a simple inability to correctly perform basic arithmetic.

And there we have the conservative movement's explanation of its position on taxes, which also happens to be its central policy goal.

I should note here that I don't have any reason to believe that any of this reflects Boehner's personal dishonesty. The problem is that the conservative movement holds as its highest principle the belief that it's unfair to charge higher tax rates to the rich. But since that principle is highly unpopular, they need to devise other rationales to sell this policy -- rationales that bear no relationship to their actual reasons, and which are usually nonsensical or simply false. Dishonesty of some form or another is common in politics, but Republican economic policymaking is characterized by massive, systematic dishonesty or rank ignorance that permeates every element of the process, from intellectual entrepreneurs to elected officials. The good news is that it keeps me in business.

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