Tim Pawlenty's New Economic Policy Isn't New, and It's Not Really a Policy

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Of course the ideas don't add up: It's a campaign speech, not a public policy document

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Tim Pawlenty's "hard truths" address on Tuesday wasn't a bold new economic plan. It was a typical GOP campaign speech (lower taxes + less regulation = magical growth) with more numbers. Pawlenty promised 5% targeted GDP growth over 10 years, a new two-rate tax code with rates at 10% and 25%, a new corporate tax that lowers the rate from 35% to 15%, and deficits reduced by 40%.

The speech sang to the chorus, and the chorus sang back. The Wall Street Journal and Larry Kudlow, two institutions that never met a tax cut they couldn't get behind, both fawned. But while numbers in a speech create their own sense of gravitas, but they can't create their own math. Pawlenty's figures don't compute, even according to his own yardstick. Lower taxes don't yield balanced budgets, and they never have in the last 50 years. Five months of 5 percent economic growth happened once in the last 30 years. Calling for five years of 5% growth is so ambitious, it's meaningless.

Ezra Klein gets it absolutely right here, and his graphs paint Pawlenty's proposals in appropriately harsh light. But Klein's withering critique is almost unfair. Pre-primary campaign speeches are supposed to be full of unrealistic promises. They're not public policy documents. A wonk unleashing on a campaign speech is like a dance critic writing of an NBA Finals game, "The costumes were fine, but the choreography was somewhat unfocused." That's correct, but it also somewhat misses the point.

The speech Klein drafts for a GOP contender delivering "the hard truth" is excellent, really excellent, down to the parallel sentence structure and use of anaphora. It's also realistic about deficit reduction, humble about the president's role in promoting economic growth, and receptive to revenue increases. In other words, it's not at all a GOP pre-primary campaign speech! At best, it's an address Sen. Tom Coburn might give to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Not every speech with numbers deserves to be taken seriously.



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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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