That August Slump

In baseball, batting .250 makes you a solid respectable regular – even if you have a cement glove and are useless in the field. You can get on base and you can score a run now and then. But that batting average also means that you fail at what you’re supposed to do three out of four times. Baseball is an odd game. Batting .333 makes you a superstar – you only fail at your primary task two out of three times. But as A. Bartlett Giamatti once said, baseball is a game designed to break your heart:

The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.

That’s very poetic and all, and often quoted, but Giamatti, who had been president of Yale University, an expert on Edmund Spenser and the relationship between English and Italian Renaissance poets, was later the Commissioner of Baseball – the one who negotiated the sad end to that Pete Rose betting scandal. You just don’t bet on your own team. Rose was allowed to voluntarily withdraw from baseball, to avoid punishment, and that broke a few hearts too, at least in Cincinnati. But it was more than local. Now one of the best ballplayers of all time will never be inducted into the Hall of Fame. He isn’t allowed anywhere near the place. It’s a Shoeless Joe Jackson thing like in the movie – the kind of thing that breaks your heart.

Baseball is a sad game. With batters, failure is expected – the default mode – and the thrill is when the guy actually gets a hit of any kind. Maybe that’s why Americans like baseball so much – things always go badly, except when they somehow surprisingly don’t, just like life. And then it’s all over and the cold wind blows and things die. Heck, Sartre and Camus and the rest of those bleak and severe French existentialists should have loved the game. Someone should have told them about it.

And if baseball is like life, then one of the existentially saddest things is the August slump. For a few days the good batter somehow can’t get a hit, and then that extends to a week, and then several weeks, then a month or more – he gets good pitches but fouls them off, or hits a solid line drive right into the shortstop’s glove, and finally he just stares, frozen, as that fastball right down the middle goes by. It’s demoralizing and the missed opportunities seem to compound each other. All the changes that can be made only make things worse – the new stance feels awkward and so on. The only thing to do is wait it out, to keep walking up to the plate – if you’re still in the lineup, if you haven’t been sent back down to the minors. Baseball, like life, can be cruel.

Mitt Romney is having that August slump. In spite of having to disavow his record in Massachusetts and in spite of being not at all what the base of his party wanted, and in spite of being stiff and boring and obviously inauthentic in every way imaginable, Romney beat them all. He followed the wry advice of many a batting coach – Hit ‘em where they ain’t. That’s what he did. He just wasn’t as nuts as the other folks, not that he ever said anything very interesting or important. He just wasn’t one of them, and he would do. It’s like that weak and wobbly off-balance slow grounder that dribbles into the outfield between the guys playing first and second. One was too far to the left, one too far to the right, and the right fielder couldn’t come in fast enough. These things sometimes happen. But a hit is a hit.

The problem is you can’t rely on that – you do need to be able to hit a screamer off the left field wall now and then, and sometimes hit a home run. Those other guys out there won’t always be conveniently out of position – managers do know how to shift things one way or another for pull hitters and such. Sooner or later there’s nowhere where they ain’t. You need to hit the damned ball, solid.

Romney knew that. The shift was on, anticipating his weaknesses, so he made that foreign trip, to show he wasn’t a hopeless rookie on the world stage. He knew he needed a solid hit – so he choose London for the opening of the Olympics, then Israel, to show that he, not Obama, knew all about how to handle Israel and the Palestinian issues and the threat of Iran, and then he was off to Poland to show support for the now very old guys who stood up to the Soviet Union. How hard could it be? He was going to knock it out of the park.

He didn’t. Romney managed to insult the British, and then his wife, and then, in Israel, he managed to insult the Palestinians and most everyone else in the world but Sheldon Adelson – and in Poland, to his surprise, he discovered that there actually is no Soviet Union anymore and Lech Walesa is a befuddled old man no one remembers. There were no home runs here, only ridicule. This was a disaster.

The polling shows the result – Romney’s Personal Image Remains Negative and Mitt Romney Replaces Sarah Palin as America’s Most Hated Politician and New Pew Poll Gives President Obama 51%-41% Breathing Room Over Mitt Romney and so on. Some people just aren’t home run hitters. Swing for the fences and you’ll strike out a lot. It’s better to work on just making contact and legging out singles, or dropping a bunt now and then. Go with your strengths. Do what you can do, not what you can’t do.

Romney’s strength, as he sees it, is that he was a wildly successful businessman who got absurdly rich, so he knows how the economy works and he can fix it. It’s simple really. Reduce taxes on the rich and only raise them a little bit on the poor and middle class and we’ll have amazing growth, and then we’ll have money enough for thew few things the government may reluctantly have to do. He’s not quite that blunt about it, but he does have a budget plan that explains it all.

But when you’re in a slump you’re in a slump. The Washington Post’s Lori Montgomery is calling the balls and strikes here:

Mitt Romney’s plan to overhaul the tax code would produce cuts for the richest 5 percent of Americans – and bigger bills for everybody else, according to an independent analysis set for release Wednesday.

The study was conducted by researchers at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, a joint project of the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute, who seem to bend over backward to be fair to the Republican presidential candidate. To cover the cost of his plan – which would reduce tax rates by 20 percent, repeal the estate tax and eliminate taxes on investment income for middle-class taxpayers – the researchers assume that Romney would go after breaks for the richest taxpayers first.

They even look at what would happen if Republicans’ dreams for tax reform came true and the proposal generated significant revenue through economic growth.

Romney strikes out:

None of it helped Romney. His rate-cutting plan for individuals would reduce tax collections by about $360 billion in 2015, the study says. To avoid increasing deficits – as Romney has pledged – the plan would have to generate an equivalent amount of revenue by slashing tax breaks for mortgage interest, employer-provided health care, education, medical expenses, state and local taxes, and child care – all breaks that benefit the middle class.

“It is not mathematically possible to design a revenue-neutral plan that preserves current incentives for savings and investment and that does not result in a net tax cut for high-income taxpayers and a net tax increase for lower- and/or middle-income taxpayers,” the study concludes.

The full report is here (in PDF format) and even bending over backwards to be fair to Romney, Montgomery says the report is not nice:

Even if tax breaks “are eliminated in a way designed to make the resulting tax system as progressive as possible, there would still be a shift in the tax burden of roughly $86 billion [a year] from those making over $200,000 to those making less” than that.

What would that mean for the average tax bill? Millionaires would get an $87,000 tax cut, the study says. But for 95 percent of the population, taxes would go up by about 1.2 percent, an average of $500 a year.

But there was this:

The Romney campaign on Wednesday declined to address the specifics of the analysis, dismissing it as a “liberal study.” Campaign officials noted that one of the three authors, Adam Looney of Brookings, served as a senior economist on the Obama Council of Economic Advisers. The other two authors are Samuel Brown and William Gale, both of whom are affiliated with Brookings and the Tax Policy Center.

“President Obama continues to tout liberal studies calling for more tax hikes and more government spending. We’ve been down that road before – and it’s led us to 41 straight months of unemployment above 8 percent,” said Romney campaign spokesman Ryan Williams. “It’s clear that the only plan President Obama has is more of the same. Mitt Romney believes that lower tax rates and less government will jump-start the economy and create jobs.

They didn’t dispute the numbers of course, and Jonathan Chait comments:

It’s worth noting that the study embraces implausibly friendly assumptions as to how Romney would go about this. It assumes he would ruthlessly purge the tax code of breaks for the rich, even highly popular ones like the charitable deduction. It further assumes that, in order to wring every last penny out of the rich, Romney would cut off all deductions immediately for every dollar in income over $200,000 a year. (In reality, nobody would create a tax code that meant going from $200,000 a year to $200,001 would jack up your taxes by thousands of dollars – you would ramp up the tax deduction phase-in, which would reduce taxes for the rich even more. But the paper bends over backwards to grant Romney this implausible assumption.)

What’s more, the paper assumes that Romney’s plan would increase economic growth, meaning it wouldn’t have to find dollar-for-dollar replacements for all its lost income. To measure this cheerful scenario, the paper adopts a model created by Greg Mankiw – who is, of course, a Bush administration veteran and one of Romney’s main economic advisers.

This is nonsense:

Piling implausibly optimistic assumption upon implausibly optimistic assumption, the paper nonetheless concludes that Romney will cut taxes for the rich. That means it would result in some combination of higher taxes for the middle class or higher deficits. If you take Romney at his word that he would hold tax revenue steady at its current levels, then he would be implementing a significant shift in the tax burden from the rich to the middle class. 95% of all taxpayers would pay more taxes, in order to finance a tax cut for the most affluent.

And remember, this is assuming the most favorable possible case for Romney. Under more realistic assumptions – that he won’t close every single penny in tax deductions benefitting the rich, and that his plan won’t spur economic growth to the degree a Republican like Mankiw hopes it would – then the transfer from the non-rich to the rich would be even higher.

Suzy Khimm says even if you’re a supply-side enthusiast this is odd:

Even when you do take the economic stimulus of tax cuts into account, Romney’s tax reductions still don’t come close to making up for the lost revenue. The Tax Policy Center used a “dynamic scoring” model that factors in the impact of economic growth brought on by tax cuts, devised by Romney adviser and Harvard professor Greg Mankiw and Harvard’s Matt Weinzierl. It’s exactly the kind of analysis that Republicans have been clamoring for, and the TPC finds that Romney’s individual tax cuts wouldn’t come close to paying for themselves.

The Laffer curve still doesn’t work here, but of course it never worked anyway, ever. That should be the name of a baseball pitch, not an economic theory. Bloomberg’s Paula Dwyer says that Romney’s plan looks “both politically infeasible and mathematically pie-in-the-sky.” She stopped short of calling it Voodoo economics. Obama’s chances of winning the Electoral College just hit an all-time high in Nate Silver’s model – and Silver started his career doing amazing statistical modeling for baseball, almost always right on the money about who would hit what. Romney is in a real slump here.

Brian Beutler piles on here:

If you’re a political reporter and don’t feel equipped to adjudicate the latest row over Mitt Romney’s tax plan, consider this:

Nobody – no economist, no analyst, no think tank – has been able to make Romney’s tax math work. At least, not without adding heaping quantities of Magic Romney Growth Elixir™ to the formula, and a lot of hand waving. Romney’s big claim is that he can cut everyone’s taxes by 20 percent, without adding a penny to the deficit, and without reclaiming the lost revenue from the pockets of lower and middle class workers.

Even under generous assumptions, this is likely impossible.

And he adds this:

At an obvious level this provides Obama campaign a huge cache of ammunition. What was once “Governor Romney’s plan would cut taxes for the folks at the very top,” is now, “Now he has a plan that will give millionaires another tax break and raises taxes on middle class families by up to $2000 dollars a year.”

But that brings us to the parallel with Romney’s tax returns: the only way for him to make the problem go away is to fork over the goods – to either name the popular deductions he would like to cap or eliminate or admit that the framework is a fantastical pander. Or let the story stand as is. All bad options.

The only option left is misdirection:

His campaign is attacking TPC’s reputation and its methodology, but ultimately the complaint amounts to whacking TPC for not including enough Magic Romney Growth Elixir in its calculations. To that end, Romney adviser Glenn Hubbard is now promising 12 million new jobs in Romney’s first term and up to a percent a year of extra GDP growth over the next decade under a Romney regime.

Assuming this approach fails, at some point he’s going to have to decide what his next best choice is. Change the plan and alienate the powerful supply siders in his coalition? Get specific and suffer different, potentially worse, political recriminations? Or weather the basically substantiated allegation that he wants to raise middle class taxes to finance tax cuts for the wealthy. That would be hard enough even if he weren’t himself a fantastically wealthy person whose taxes are already so low that he’s unwilling to disclose his returns to the public.

Which will it be? Jonathan Cohn offers this:

I happen to support higher taxes for the middle class, at least over the long term, assuming they are part of a balanced deficit reduction approach that preserves Medicare, Social Security, and other critical programs. In an ideal world, Obama would make a case for precisely that sort of agenda, because without those higher taxes (above and beyond taxing the rich, as Obama has proposed) government won’t have enough money to fund future spending obligations. But it’s hard to fault Obama for not presenting the full facts about fiscal tradeoffs when the other side has shown repeatedly that it doesn’t care about facts at all.

Romney might dispute that:

Romney spoke before a crowd of more than 1,000 at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds. He said he had a “presidential accountability scorecard” to help grow the U.S. economy.

The [Denver] Post said Romney pointed to energy independence, making sure the young have the skills to succeed, improving the U.S. trade system, cutting the national debt and championing small businesses.

If goals in those five areas are achieved, Romney said, it would create an estimated 12 million jobs, the Post reported.

Here’s Libby Spenser:

An estimated 12 million jobs? Seriously? Shades of McCain’s secret plan to “get bin Laden.”

That’s it. I’m dusting off my old favorite conspiracy theory. I can only believe Romney is deliberately throwing the election. Newly convinced they’re going to pull a bait and switch at the convention. I hope I’m wrong.

Well, when the batter’s in a slump like this you send him back down to the minors. You send Sarah Palin to the plate or something.

That’s not happening. Zeke Miller and McKay Coppins offer this “insider” report on the serene mood in the Romney campaign:

Mitt Romney has lost each of the last 40 days, each day in its own way. Now his campaign, finally reckoning with a summer of effective fundraising and disastrous messaging, is hoping the waters will recede, and looking for a safe mountaintop on which to land his weathered ark.

Romney’s aides – resigned to the current news cycle until after the Olympics end – said in interviews this week that they see a safe landing: The vice presidential announcement, followed up by the Republican convention, offer Romney a chance to retake control over his own narrative.

Do nothing until after the Olympics then choose a cool running mate – things will be just fine. They quote Steve Schmidt, the campaign manager for John McCain in 2008:

“It’s still fundamentally a very close race. Mitt Romney is running a well-capitalized campaign, in a terrible economy that is getting worse.”

“Do you want to have a difficult foreign trip in the way they had, no you don’t, but if you have to have a difficult foreign trip, this was the time to have it,” Schmidt said. The reality is, if you don’t have any mistakes in September and October, people tend to forget the mistakes you made in July and August.”

If you don’t have any mistakes in September and October… right. And hit ‘em where they ain’t. And don’t really say much.

That worked fine in the primaries, but Ed Kilgore now expects to hear this from the Republican base:

Is Romney’s tax plan regressive? Damn straight it is, conservatives think, and that’s a good thing since the current tax code’s progressivity is an immoral assault on the success of job-creators! Is the Ryan Budget just a modest effort to “reform” entitlements and restore sanity in federal spending, as the Romney campaign’s occasional references to it suggest, or instead, as critics claim, the first step in a crusade aimed at shredding the New Deal and Great Society safety net? Most red-blooded conservatives are strongly committed to the latter proposition, and they want Mitt to own up to it as well, because they quite frankly don’t trust him to stick to the spirit and letter of their agenda.

No wonder Romney is in a slump:

This central contradiction in Romney’s campaign explains better than anything else why every discussion of his policy platform is perilous for Mitt, and why his failed efforts to campaign on his biography are a big, big problem. Yes, he can continue to lie about his proposals and try to change the subject via attacks on Obama. But sooner or later, his own party base will demand the truth, if only to ensure that he will stay with the program once he is elected. And then the fundamental mendacity of his campaign will no longer be a partisan claim, but a stipulated fact.

They’ll find out he can’t hit. He can’t even bunt. Maybe they’ll bench him and send someone else to the plate – he’s not the nominee just yet, after all. But who? This game really can break your heart.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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