Why Mitt Romney Isn’t Wrong

You can’t argue with someone who assumes things that haven’t happened yet as necessary truths.


The highlight of the debate for me: “So there’s no economist that can say Mitt Romney’s tax plan adds $5 trillion if I say I will not add to the deficit with my tax plan.”

This is, at first, an absurd claim. “No expert can say I’m wrong because I’m making the rules.”

But it’s also correct. No one can say that there are any consequences to a plan that hasn’t been employed yet except those that are necessary consequences of law or logic. However, there’s no tight system over which to assert law or logic. Just a few bullet points. That’s why platforms are never very detailed. Too much detail and you admit the possibility of asserting something that violates a hard rule of logic or a natural/economic/human law.

So, really, no economist can say Mitt Romney’s tax plan adds $5 trillion to the deficit. There’s not enough resolution.

This isn’t a Romney criticism. He just let slip the big debate/campaign secret: you can’t win or lose, much less be right or wrong. It’s nothing but a word game on top of a mess of details that will make all the seemingly impossible big points work out in the end.

Later, Romney emphasizes this point: “Now, you cite a study. There are six other studies that looked at the study you describe and say it’s completely wrong. I saw a study that came out today that said you’re going to raise taxes by $3,000 to $4,000 on middle-income families.”

What does he mean by this? All these studies say different things because they fix premises differently. They have to choose the details because the candidates don’t offer any: how many loopholes closed, how many extra Americans paying taxes, the cost of this vague promise, etc.

FactCheck.org tweeted, “Romney says he will pay for $5 trillion tax cut without raising deficit or raising taxes on middle class. Experts say that’s not possible.” But Romney could just respond, “My experts say that it is possible, but they are taking X,Y, and Z into account. They are using a different model.” Would he be wrong? How can we assess the fit of a model that isn’t fully detailed? To what laws/logic can we appeal in a world of hand-waving?

So what’s the lesson? Facts depend on an entire system–let’s call it the world–over which they can be said to have logical consistency. A fact by itself is just a number. And Romney made great arguments against the isolated facts, these debate numbers, these canards. This didn’t stop the candidates from throwing out numbers like they were looking for new primes. This didn’t stop the candidates from debating. But what’s the point? Big bird.

My friend Nathan adds, “Romney’s predicating this whole argument on something he can’t know … that ‘the pie’ will be bigger.” This is a particularly difficult argument for fact-checkers to attack, in part because he can’t be wrong. The only attack has to prove why the opposite can be known. You can use projections and more models to argue why that isn’t likely, but there’s always the chance that America invents a fusion power plant and finds an oil ocean under one of the states we don’t care about.



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About Erik Hinton

I'm a web developer at The New York Times, where I specialize in next-generation skeuomorphs, disruptive cartographic practices, and alchemy. I'm also the one of the founders of the Moustache Club of America and Penny & Farthing, blogzines specializing in flash fiction and creative nonfiction that I co-curate with university professorOliver Bateman , medical consultant Nathan Zimmerman, and freelance writer Christie Chapman. Follow me on Twitter: ErikHinton


  1. The TPC’s numbers take two approaches to arrive at their conclusions for the Romney proposed tax cuts: current law (expiration of tax cuts in 2013) and current policy (continuing existing tax cuts). And on a static basis (no growth inclusions) they arrive at 480 billion (current law) and 980 billion (current policy) for the year of 2015 respectively. The 5 trillion number looks like a 10 year horizon for the current law scenario.

    • Nick, mostly says:

      Interesting, hadn’t seen the TPC’s estimates. All the same, even if Romney added 12 million jobs a year (and wow, wouldn’t that be awesome!), there’s no way the tax revenue offsets current policy, let alone his proposed 20% decrease in the marginal rate.

      The simple truth is that we don’t pay enough taxes for the current levels of spending. We need to either reduce spending or raise taxes. I favor doing both, and my preference for the spending cuts is weighted heavily in curtailing our military adventures abroad.

  2. Nick, mostly says:

    My friend Nathan adds, “Romney’s predicating this whole argument on something he can’t know … that ‘the pie’ will be bigger.” This is a particularly difficult argument for fact-checkers to attack, in part because he can’t be wrong.

    Oh, but he can be wrong. There is this thing I like to call “arithmetic” and Mitt’s claims simply don’t add up.
    Consider his proposed across the board tax cuts. The deductions he’s planned on eliminating only pay for a small portion of the tax cuts. Then add to that his proposed spending increases on the military and Medicare. If he plans on paying for those with a bigger pie, well then ask yourself just how much bigger would this pie have to be?
    He says he will add 12 million jobs to make this pie bigger. Let’s assume those 12 million jobs average out to the median salary in the US of $50,000 and they are taxed at 20%. Shall we do the math?
    12,000,000 x 50,000 x .20 = $120,000,000,000
    $120 billion
    Conservative estimates of the Romney tax cuts and spending increases place it at $1.2 trillion (liberal estimates place it at $5 trillion). It seems like Mitt is about 90 cents short of having a whole dollar. Either that or I hope I get one of those new jobs because they’ll have to pay about $500,000 a year for Mitt’s math to work out.

    There is one way to “grow” our way out of the mess we’re in. It’s called “inflation.” But don’t tell anyone, it’s not something you should say in polite company.

  3. wellokaythen says:

    This may sound odd, but it’s not always a bad thing when politics is boring or politicians are nondescript. It’s not necessarily a bad thing when there are lots of voters who are undecided. A lot of people in many parts of the world, Syria for example, would love to be bored by national politics. People in Uganda would love to have a relaxing debate over which leader has better hair. In some countries, having more than one candidate for President results in a bloody civil war.

    We may be lucky to be so bored….

  4. wellokaythen says:

    I take the Bill Maher approach: choose the party that is bribed by the people you like best. Both are beholden to special interest groups, so choose which one has the preferable collection of special interest groups who will benefit from your choice.

  5. Romney Ryan. They strike me as the worst possible choice for immigrants, blue collar workers, unions, the LGBT community, children, healthcare issues, the environment, or getting our country up to par with the rest of the first world in terms of services for it’s people. And yes, dare I say it, women.
    Ryan terrifies me. Rommey seems….well, mean spirited, entitled and completely out of touch with how middle and lower middle class workers live. Ryan worshipped at the alter of Ayn Rand and that self interest of libertarianism.
    I do suspect they’ll be great for corporations and the wealthy though, so there’s that. Yay!
    And I don’t have any idea if they’ll get people out of wars. I think wars are here to stay no matter who is in office. Makes money, protects oil reserves.
    I don’t know that I’ve ever been so despairing about our political system, or the divisions of our people.
    I can’t say Obama has been perfect, but a Romney Ryan presidency fills me with concern.

    • “I can’t say Obama has been perfect, but a Romney Ryan presidency fills me with concern.”

      That about sums up my entire feeling about this election cycle. I can’t get excited, not even a little, about either side. The more I hear them talk, the less I believe in any of it. I’m normally a devoted NPR listener but have had it turned off for at least the last month because I got tired of arriving to work angry or depressed in the morning.

    • “Worst possible choice”? Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten about all the other GOP candidates who dropped out already!

      Rick Santorum
      Rick Perry
      Michelle Bachmann
      Newt Gingrich
      Herman Cain
      Ron Paul

      Believe me, things could have been much, much worse.

  6. Tom Matlack says:

    It may come as a shock to some readers, but as the founder of GMP I am as of this moment undecided and probably leaning towards a vote for Romney. I have voted democratic in every Presidential election I was old enough to vote in (starting in 1982) and voted for Obama. But I cast that vote primarily because I was so upset by our invasion of Iraq. Obama ran on the promise of getting us out of that Vietnam. He not only failed to do that but doubled down in Afghanistan, a far bigger mistake in my mind even than the Iraq war. (See NYT photojournalist and GMP writer Michael Kamber’s piece on that topic here: http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/repeating-iraqs-mistakes-in-afghanistan/).

    • Invading Afghanistan with the intent of building a nation was an incredibly bad decision. Throwing away the lives of more good men and women in a futile attempt to make the invasion work is just a continuation of the same.

      however, have you ever heard Romney criticize any part of the military action that the USA has taken over the past 10+ years?

      what’s your response to Romney’s wanting to make the US military even stronger than it is already by spending even MORE money?

      Suggesting that Romney is a better choice because he somehow might make better decisions about America’s military than Obama is, well, sounding sorta Romney-esque.

    • I voted for President Obama in 2008. I’m currently undecided but was decidedly unimpressed with how he performed at the debate.

      For better or for worse- President Obama has to run on his record. It’s not exactly glowing.

  7. Mark Ellis says:

    I have to disagree, Bobbt, The GMPM has been very forthcoming in including my conservative views, has asked on occasion that I provide them, and has presented those views in a respectful manner.

  8. wellokaythen says:

    What’s remarkable to me is how both candidates talk about the middle class strictly as a victim of evil rich people or evil lenders. There’s a lot of truth to that, but no one who wants to get elected would ever tell the _whole_ truth, which is that there are many middle class people who screwed themselves and each other. They bought houses they couldn’t afford, hoping to offload them later on even more gullible people. They spent over their limit again and again to buy more and more consumer crap to fill the homes that were too big for them anyway. Is it ALWAYS the bank’s fault when a house goes into foreclosure, and the owners are NEVER responsible? Are we not ourselves to blame just a little bit?

    As someone who works at a community college, I was struck by another amazing moment: two Presidential candidates arguing over who is the better supporter of community colleges. This is probably the first time this has ever happened. I guess we’ve come a long way from just being the butt of jokes….

    • it was an oddly engaging debate between mr slippery and mr sleepy. wondering would obama fall asleep at the podium, would romney slip on his oily words

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