Politics As Usual

paulTo me, the biggest disappointment of this camapaign season has been Rand Paul. I’m sure there will be others.

I just saw Senator Paul on Fox News, where he made four substantive statements, one nonsensical, one innumerate, one economically illiterate, and one evasive to the point of dishonesty.

On the subject of collecting cellphone data without warrants, the host posed a hypothetical situation where a foreign terrorist is identified and we want to know which Americans he’s been talking to for the past six months. Paul’s answer: Get a warrant. The problem, of course, is that not even the US government, even newly armed with a warrant, is powerful enough to gather calling data that vanished into the ether six months ago. When the host pointed this out, Senator Paul ignored it.

On the subject of his tax plan, when presented with estimates that he’d be cutting taxes by 3% for the poor and by 13% for the rich, the senator could either have denied those numbers or defended them. Instead, he patiently explained that if you cut everyone’s taxes by 10%, then of course the rich will get bigger cuts (in absolute terms) than the poor. True, but to think that this was in any way relevant to the question requires a complete abandonment of all knowledge of arithmetic.

His answer on Social Security was the most disheartening of all — he plans to shift the legal burden of the tax entirely to employers, which, as everyone who has taken Economics 101 is aware, will cause wages to drop by the exact amount that workers save in taxes, leaving them not, as Senator Paul claims, with an extra $2000 in their pockets but with exactly an extra $0. The suggestion that the laws of economics can be repealed by the US Congress is the sort of thing I expect from only the sleaziest of politicians.

And finally, when asked for some indication of how he planned to cut federal spending by $3 trillion — how much from entitlements? how much from discretionary spending? —- his answer was that the government spends too much. I agree, but I still have no idea what he plans to cut.

I went in with extremely high hopes for this guy, and I still think he’s shown a lot of insight and a lot of courage over the years, speaking truths that other politicians dare not speak. But this was a sad, sad showing.

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14 Responses to “Politics As Usual”


  1. 1 1 Advo

    Is there any leading GOP politician who’s less dishonest about the numbers when he/she is talking about issues relating to budget and tax policy?
    This kind of obfuscation seems to be standard procedure.

  2. 2 2 Ross Levatter

    “On the subject of his tax plan, when presented with estimates that he’d be cutting taxes by 3% for the poor and by 13%,”

    Is something missing after “13%”. “for the rich”, maybe?

  3. 3 3 Steve Landsburg

    Ross — thanks. Fixing this…

  4. 4 4 Roger

    Sometimes I think that Libertarians are just plants to convince us that a free society is impossible.

    Rand Paul has bet his candidacy on people being outraged by the Snowden revelations and NSA surveillance. But it appears that nobody cares about that issue. It is hard to see his campaign going anywhere now.

  5. 5 5 Advo

    Really – is there any GOP politician who is honest about the actual data when talking about fiscal policy?
    If you’re a GOP politician, you have to advocate tax cuts favoring the wealthy, and you have to pretend that these tax cuts will actually increase revenues, or at least be revenue-neutral.
    Under those circumstances, how can you be honest?

  6. 6 6 L.

    While I understand that the economic incidence and legal incidence of taxation are two different concepts, I don’t understand why it necessarily implies that shifting the legal incidence of Social Security to employers automatically implies that employees bear the economic burden through reduced wages.

    I understand how that could be a possibility, but why is it, for example, that it isn’t that the consumer ends up picking up the tab via higher prices or less employees get hired? More importantly, why do we assume it works one way and not the other: Why don’t employees, if we assume they have to bear the economic burden of the tax via reduced wages, then ultimately index their wages to account for that disparity and thus ultimately place the burden right back on the employer?

  7. 7 7 marris

    > The problem, of course, is that not even the US government, even newly armed with a warrant, is powerful enough to gather calling data that vanished into the ether six months ago.

    I don’t understand this statement. Most carriers let you see one year’s worth of cell phone bills, and each bill lists the calls for that month. So the data would be available with a warrant.

  8. 8 8 Steve Landsburg

    L.: You are right that, depending on elasticities of supply and demand (for both final goods and factors of production), the ultimate burden of the tax can land anywhere at all. But the Eco-101 fact that you’re missing is that shifting the legal burden can’t change the economic burden. If employers and employees, between them, currently pay $x, and if we shift things around so that employees pay less while employers pay more, while leaving the total at $x, then (after prices and wages adjust), employees must end up with exactly the same take-home pay they started with.

  9. 9 9 nobody.really

    I just saw Senator Paul on Fox News, where he made four substantive statements, one nonsensical, one innumerate, one economically illiterate, and one evasive to the point of dishonesty….

    I went in with extremely high hopes for this guy, and I still think he’s shown a lot of insight and a lot of courage over the years, speaking truths that other politicians dare not speak. But this was a sad, sad showing.

    How should an economically literate politician to respond? I’d expect that he’d respond to incentives.

    What incentives does Paul have? If Landsburg were to project himself into Paul’s mind to learn his incentives, he’d find that Paul is busy projecting himself into our Landsburg’s mind. That is, Paul is thinking about what he needs to do to attract various types of voters/donors, and how far he can go to appeal to one set of voters/donors before he the number of votes/$ he gains exceeds the number he loses. And that is influenced by elasticity of demand if each voter/donor for each candidate.

    I’d guess Paul figures he doesn’t have to do much to hang on to the libertarian vote. First, there aren’t that many libertarian voters to worry about. And if they don’t want to vote for Paul, who else would they vote for? Rather, I expect Paul designed his answers to appeal to swing voters – people who might be scared off by too much candor.

    In short, I find nothing to reflect economic illiteracy on Paul’s account. Perhaps economic illiteracy on behalf of the public but that’s kinda different.

  10. 10 10 Bennett Haselton

    I had the same question as marris.

  11. 11 11 Floccina

    His answer on Social Security was the most disheartening of all — he plans to shift the legal burden of the tax entirely to employers, which, as everyone who has taken Economics 101 is aware, will cause wages to drop by the exact amount that workers save in taxes, leaving them not, as Senator Paul claims, with an extra $2000 in their pockets but with exactly an extra $0. The suggestion that the laws of economics can be repealed by the US Congress is the sort of thing I expect from only the sleaziest of politicians.

    I agree that some national level politician should talk honestly about SS, but SS is a welfare program that is disguised as a Ponzi scheme in order to keep up support for it. Paul’s plan might in the long run get voters to see it as a welfare program and that might lead to sensible change, like paying all senior the same amount in retirement.

  12. 12 12 Henri Hein

    Thirding the warrant question.

    Regardless, it’s annoying that Rand didn’t answer at all. I wish he would have said, “if the data isn’t available at that time, tough.” No other criminal activity has excused government to engage in mass surveillance on its citizens. If the police, when they apprehended Jeffrey Dahmer, had said, “we want to know who he talked to on the phone the last 6 months,” the correct response would have been, “OK, get your warrants and see what data you can collect.” I don’t see how it should be different with a foreign terrorist.

  13. 13 13 bluto

    I just logged on to check, my phone company has called number records going back at least 12 months, phone records don’t disappear, they’re stored by the phone company. There’s no reason this shouldn’t be collectible only with a warrant.

  14. 14 14 Thomas

    I’m not a fan of his but…

    I’d be very surprised if who-called-whom records are not kept for a long time, or indefinitely.

    On the tax reductions, when the tax system is steeply progressive (and, including state taxes, a number of our more populous states are more progressive than the large European countries), if you flatten tax rates you’re going to reduce them more on the rich. How could it be otherwise? Perhaps that’s all he was trying to say.

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