Mitt Romney’s economics: Flip back please
The probable Republican nominee should stop pandering to the left on China and to the right on taxes
Apr 21st 2012 | from the print edition
TO UNDERSTAND why Mitt Romney has triumphed over his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, look no further than March’s disappointing job numbers. With growth fragile and petrol prices soaring, the economy is Barack Obama’s gaping weak spot, and Republican primary voters have backed the candidate best equipped to exploit it.
Yet it is very far from clear what they are getting. Blame that, in part, on a nominating contest that repeatedly veered into irrelevancies. But blame the candidate, too. In the past year Mr Romney’s views have metamorphosed worryingly as he has tried to protect his flank against a succession of conservative challengers. It is no exaggeration to say that there are now two Romneys when it comes to economics (see article).
First to the left, then to the right
But there is also a second Romney—the desperate crowd-pleaser who will say anything to win over his audience of the day. This Romney lurches both to the left and the right. On trade, he has promised that on his first day in office he will have China branded a currency manipulator. This is doubly daft. Economically, it is unjustified: as China has allowed the yuan to appreciate, it has become far less undervalued, as evidenced by China’s shrunken current-account surplus (see article). Politically, it would needlessly inflame the prickly Chinese during their own leadership transition. For the chief executive of the world’s biggest economy to start by picking a fight with the second-biggest would be plain stupid.
As troubling as his pandering to the left on trade is his swing to the right on taxes. Until February, Mr Romney had promised to cut taxes only on corporate profits and investment. Then, in a crude attempt to catch up with his tax-slashing rivals, he pledged to cut all personal income-tax rates by 20%. That would take the top rate of tax down to levels last seen under Ronald Reagan. Mr Romney claims he could pay for this by closing loopholes for the affluent—an excellent reformist idea, but meaningless unless you say which loopholes are going to go. Apart from sketching out a few small ideas to a group of donors, ideas that his aides rapidly downplayed, Mr Romney has said almost nothing about which tax breaks should go. The most likely reason is that any realistic cull of loopholes to pay for his lower income-tax rates (and the lower capital-gains and dividends rates he wants) will hit the middle class.
The younger Mr Romney would never have invested in an entrepreneur with such a large hole in his numbers. But in this case it is worse, because Candidate Romney has not even evaluated the problem correctly. The businesslike solution to America’s finances is not revenue-neutral tax reform. The gap between what Americans expect from their government and what they pay is simply too big. Even if spending cuts close most of that gap, some money must come from higher revenues. Mr Romney surely knows this, but when asked during a debate if he would reject a deficit deal that cut $10 of spending for every dollar of higher taxes, he raised his hand, alongside the nuttier candidates.
Mr Romney’s nomination is now virtually secure; he can start to walk back from some of his more recent positions. He should offer China a truce if it sticks to structural reforms that reduce its external imbalance. On the budget, he should promise to cut tax rates only as part of a credible, medium-term plan to stabilise the debt, and refuse to rule out raising net revenue in the process. At least he would then be flip-flopping towards common sense, instead of away from it.
The original article is linked here.