Obama's Scuzzy Math

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Apparently Barack Obama's repudiation of "politics as usual" (a claim that looks less believable by the hour) does not, alas, include eschewing one of the most irritating tics of the modern presidency: Policy analysis by individual anecdote. Here's one sliver from his contradiction-fueled press conference last night (italics mine):

The first step we took was to pass a recovery plan to jump-start job creation and put money in people's pockets. This plan's already saved the jobs of teachers and police officers. It's creating construction jobs to rebuild roads and bridges.

And yesterday, I met with a man whose company is reopening a factory outside of Pittsburgh that's rehiring workers to build some of the most energy-efficient windows in the world.

New anecdote proves it! But now look at what happens when a reporter asks him about hiking taxes on charitable giving by upper-income donors:

Weird science

QUESTION: […] Are you reconsidering your plan to cut the interest rate deduction for mortgages and for charities? And do you regret having proposed that in the first place?

OBAMA: No, I think it's -- I think it's the right thing to do, where we've got to make some difficult choices. Here's what we did with respect to tax policy. What we said was that, over the last decade, the average worker, the average family have seen their wages and incomes flat. Even in times where supposedly we were in the middle of an economic boom, as a practical matter, their incomes didn't go up. And so, well, we said, "Let's give them a tax cut. Let's give them some relief, some help, 95 percent of American families."

Now, for the top 5 percent, they're the ones who typically saw huge gains in their income. I -- I fall in that category. And what we've said is, for those folks, let's not renew the Bush tax cuts, so let's go back to the rates that existed back in -- during the Clinton era, when wealthy people were still wealthy and doing just fine, and let's look at the -- the level at which people can itemize their deductions.

And what we've said is: Let's go back to the rate that existed under Ronald Reagan. People are still going to be able to make charitable contributions. It just means, if you give $100 and you're in this tax bracket, at a certain point, instead of being able to write off 36 percent or 39 percent, you're writing off 28 percent.

Now, if it's really a charitable contribution, I'm assuming that that shouldn't be the determining factor as to whether you're giving that $100 to the homeless shelter down the street. And so this provision would affect about 1 percent of the American people. They would still get deductions. It's just that they wouldn't be able to write off 39 percent. […]

I think it is a realistic way for us to raise some revenue from people who've benefited enormously over the last several years. It's not going to cripple them. They'll still be well-to-do. And, you know, ultimately, if we're going to tackle the serious problems that we've got, then, in some cases, those who are more fortunate are going to have to pay a little bit more.

QUESTION: It's not the well-to-do people. It's the charities. Given what you've just said, are you confident the charities are wrong when they contend that this would discourage giving?

OBAMA: Yes, I am. I mean, if you look at the evidence, there's very little evidence that this has a significant impact on charitable giving. I'll tell you what has a significant impact on charitable giving, is a financial crisis and an economy that's contracting. And so the most important thing that I can do for charitable giving is to fix the economy, to get banks lending again, to get businesses opening their doors again, to get people back to work again. Then I think charities will do just fine.

See how that works? A data point sample size* of one is enough to prove that a monster spending program is working. But a data point sample size of several–that is, of all the charities that have plausibly concluded that taxing their donors more will result in lower donations (or, as economist Martin Feldstein puts it in the Washington Post today, in an effective "transfer [of] more than $7 billion a year from the nation's charitable institutions to the federal government")–well, that's not significant, because it only affects that 1 percent, and besides, we're not sure if what they're doing is really a charitable deduction.

This math ain't just fuzzy, it's bullshit on toast. In this and several other instances last night (and last week, and last month), Obama has shown he's willing, eager even, to convert measurements from apples to oranges to bicycles whenever it best suits his needs, all while casting aspersions on those who would point out his double and triple standards. And no, having the federal government slosh $100 million more to its charities of choice does not fill that $7 billion hole, let alone evince an appreciation that the font of most American charity is and should always be the private sector.

* Thanks to pedantic grad student Warty for the edit.