The Next Chapters in the Republican War on Math: Tax Cuts and Austerity

GOP partisans got their forecasts all wrong in the run-up to the election. Now they're showing their innumeracy in the policy arena, too.


On election night, Republican strategist and Fox News contributor Karl Rove was unwilling to believe that President Obama had won Ohio, arguing with anchor Megyn Kelly that Ohio was too close to call. Eventually, Kelly asked Rove if his calculations were "just math you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better or is this real?"

This televised moment on Election Day was one small victory for statistics. Another was that FiveThirtyEight blogger Nate Silver accurately predicted the election outcome, right down to the number of electoral votes, using a model that aggregates local and national polls.

These victories for math come on the heels of an election season where Mitt Romney repeatedly and willfully worked to convince the public that his tax plan would both deliver tax cuts and reduce the deficit, which was about as true as saying that two plus two equals five.

But the fact that Romney lost the election does not mean that the war on math is over. While election outcomes lay bare whose hopes got in the way of their math, on a host of other issues, understanding math-denial requires more digging.

There are two math fallacies affecting the current economic debate. First, Republicans continue to argue that tax cuts for the wealthy are key to growing the economy, despite solid evidence to the contrary. This argument is their primary objection to allowing President George W. Bush's tax cuts on the wealthy expire at the end of the year.

The facts fly in the face of their argument. We know what happened in the 2000s after the Bush tax cuts: Despite the supposedly job-creating tax breaks, our economy experienced its worst record for growth in investment, employment, and incomes in half a century, an outcome devastating to our middle class.

Yet Republican leaders are working to make sure that the math fits their version of reality, rather than actual reality. As the New York Times has reported, the Congressional Research Service, a non-partisan arm of Congress, was forced by Republican leaders in the Senate to withdraw an economic report showing "no correlation between top tax rates and economic growth."

Getting the math right about the effects of tax cuts on our economy is a priority given that the national conversation has now turned to whether these tax cuts should be extended. If Nate Silver was an economist, he would aggregate all the studies that show that more tax cuts for the wealthy will not grow the middle class. Fortunately, others have looked at the data and found just that.

A second example of math denialism is the notion that sharp cuts in spending to eliminate a budget deficit when an economy hasn't fully recovered from a deep recession will lead to robust economic growth and job creation. Both economic theory and recent experience in countries that have gone down the austerity path show that this perspective is willfully in denial of empirical reality. Countries that have been implementing austerity packages are now teetering toward, if not already in, recession.

The United Kingdom, for example, has pared back spending, but as it have done so, the rate of growth and job creation have both stalled. In fact, newly released forecasts from the International Monetary Fund show economic-growth prospects being revised down for Great Britain, as well as for most other European countries that have implemented aggressive austerity regimes, including Germany and France. According to the IMF's analysis, fiscal contraction now poses one of the top risks not just to the U.S. economy, but also to the overall world economic recovery.

Even as Republicans struggle with math in election forecasts or economic policy, they are also failing to grapple with science. GOP leaders also continue to argue that evidence of global warming is really a case of "manipulated data." But the empirical evidence is overwhelming that climate change is not only real, it is having serious economic and social impacts. The economic impacts are proving to be quite large: The cost of extreme weather events, which are becoming more common as the earth warms, is estimated to be $14.5 billion -- and that's before the cost of Hurricane Sandy.

Kelly hit the mark when she asked what kind of math Rove was doing. The beauty of math is that two plus two always equals four, no matter your political leanings. We should all start asking whether someone's math is something they do to make themselves feel better or whether it's a calculation that others can replicate.