Vice Presidential Debate: Paul Ryan Budget Has an Arithmetic Problem

Bill Clinton’s speech in Charlotte at the Democratic National Convention wasn't just a rousing crowd-pleaser. He also implanted a one-word meme that's complicating the Mitt Romney/Paul Ryan economic sales pitch. The magic word? Arithmetic. In the political context, that's a sufficiently unusual word that listeners turned it into a hash-tag.

Now whenever Romney and Ryan talk about their tax plan, they have to explain the arithmetic. In this clip, Chris Wallace of Fox News, seldom seen as liberal, asked Ryan to explain the Romney/Ryan tax cut math. And Ryan won't do it! 

(You can see Steven Colbert’s review of the interview here.) Listen to the tone of the video. It sounds like Wallace is asking "So, what will my payments be?", and Ryan is the sleazy used car salesman promising, "Don't think about the payments, we have that covered — look at the cool rims and big engine and neat tax cut."

And then the customer asks again, "What will the payments be?" And still Ryan won't answer. He says the math takes too much time, which is pretty strange for a question that has a three word answer: "Five trillion dollars." Wallace gave Ryan an opportunity, more than once, to come up with a smaller number than the Tax Policy Center’s five trillion, and Ryan simply wouldn’t do it, even with the unlikelihood that Wallace was prepared — or even inclined — to challenge him.

As the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein puts it, "This isn’t advanced calculus. It’s arithmetic."

Barack Obama should use arithmetic in the presidential debates against Romney, not just numbers, but that exact word. Americans are now primed to mistrust Romney/Ryan claims, unless and until the numbers seem plausible. They aren’t. Today, Romney was out with a revised suggestion about capping the maximum deduction. That might buy him a day while wonks recalculate their spreadsheets, but the overall picture simply can't change: to make Romney's tax plan revenue neutral, the middle class will have to make up for a significant shortfall in payments from the top 1%, even if the 1% lose all their deductions. We know how much the 1% pay, and government figures help estimate the effect of each deduction. The Tax Policy Center put the shortfall at $86 billion a year and up, and that's the number Ryan couldn't contest. Romney and his friends will pay less, even without their deductions. Someone else pays more, probably you. It's all, you see, arithmetic.