A few weeks ago on one of my favorite sites, Don’t Quit Your Day Job, I made a comment on one of their excellent-as-usual technical analyses, suggesting that they should turn their analytical powers on a claim I’d been hearing: that Barack Obama is a bigger tax cutter than George W. Bush, and perhaps the biggest tax cutting president in history.
I’m not a numbers guy, and you’ll rarely find a lot of math at Married (with Debt). I prefer to leave that stuff to the experts, like PK at DQYDJ.net. Being a community-minded site, they often ask readers to offer questions. I’m glad PK reached out to me and shared the results of his analysis into the claim, and allowed me to offer a response, which you can read today at DQYDJ.
My interest in the question of taxes is purely behavioral. Tax policy is very esoteric, and as with most economic subjects, it is very malleable and open to various interpretations. My interest is centered around cognitive bias, specifically confirmation bias. This is the tendency of people to reject facts that don’t uphold their own beliefs. I was interested to see how people who hate Barack Obama would react if they learned he was the biggest tax cutting president in history.
The reason I asked was to find a Yes or No answer:
Is Barack Obama a bigger tax cutter than George Bush?
It turns out that yes, he is.
PK did a great analysis which is also published today and concluded that “Well, some articles have made the claim that over his first 4 years, President Obama has been a more prolific tax cutter than President Bush. Is it the truth? It is, yes! However, this political claim (like, well, all political claims) needs to be un-spun so you can see where it comes from.”
He goes on to get into the weeds of tax policy, permanent cuts vs. temporary cuts, and whose tax cuts will ultimately leave more money in the economy. There is also some difficulty in comparing Bush vs. Obama because GWB had two terms and Obama has less than one.
He also built an interactive chart where you can see for yourself, and remove certain tax cuts from the equation if you don’t agree with them.
Getting more in-depth with his conclusions, PK likens the exercise to a Choose Your Own Adventure Book (if you are 30 years old or older, you should remember these from your childhood):
“One merely has to look at the estimates over a 10 year time-frame to see that the Bush Tax cuts ended up leaving more money in the private economy than the Obama provisions. It also doesn’t take federal spending into account.
There are two ways to spin this:
- President Obama’s tax provisions left more money in the economy during his first term.
- President Bush’s tax provisions left more money in the economy over the length the provisions were active.
Your choice… choose your own!”
I also went on to rib PK a bit as an economist and remind him that economists must also be unspun at times. Harry Truman once famously said, to paraphrase: Send me a one-armed economist because I’m tired of hearing “well, on the other hand…” PK then brought up the joke: if you ask 5 economists for their opinion on an issue, you’ll get 6 answers.
This dissonance exists where politics and economics meet. Both exist independently, but both co-exist depending on how someone wants to use the other for gain. Almost any fact can be spun to confirm whatever we are trying to confirm.
As I mentioned in the DQYDJ post, some of you will suffer from confirmation bias when you hear that Obama is a prolific tax cutter. This does not fit with the Fox News narrative you’ve been sold.
Fox News actually takes confirmation bias to a whole new level by trying to cure it. They do this by painting the opposition as the devil. Therefore, any information, whether it is factual or not, is not worthy of respect because it is devil-speak.
Fox News has made it so easy for armchair idiots to be political experts. If you hear a fact you don’t like, call the source a liberal commie asshole and YOU WIN! the argument
This type of debate style has been empowering 65 year old grade school dropouts since 1996.
An avowed Obama hater once asked me to name one thing Obama did to improve my life. When I said he cut my taxes, the hater’s mind was so seriously blown that I actually saw smoke come out of his ears. I think he is still scouring the Internet from a dark hovel trying desperately to find some morsel to disprove this fact.
Confirmation bias is probably one of the biggest hurdles to compromise. Unless both sides are willing to accept facts as facts, we can never get to the heart of a problem and solve it.
American politics has become too territorial, and a winner-take-all game. The only way one side can win is if the other side loses every time.
As the old adage goes, you’d be surprised at what can be accomplished when no one cares who gets credit (or blame).
Before you type that angry comment…
I’m not an Obama apologist. I did vote for him in 2008, but I probably will not vote to re-elect him. This is because he is wishy-washy, doesn’t do what he said he’d do, and is a general all around loser when it comes to fights.
Nobody likes a loser.
Now don’t go expecting a lot of politics on this site. Though I have been a political consultant for about 7 years now, I try to avoid it like the plague in my real life. That’s because most people I encounter either don’t know what they are talking about, or can’t have a debate without resorting to name calling.
If I thought for one second that I could overcome the power of confirmation bias, I’d be writing every day on ways we can put solutions ahead of politics and solve real problems.
Problem is nobody wants that.
Not the politicians. Not the media. Not even the American public, who will tell you in every survey that they hate partisan rancor (they don’t).
Politics is mainly about platitudes. As defined by the genius HL Mencken, platitudes are an idea (a) that is admitted to be true by everyone, and (b) that is not true.
Until it moves beyond that, I’ll remain disinterested.
Now mosey on over to Don't Quit Your Day Job to see for yourself.