One of this year’s major debate points between Democrats and Republicans is the question of who will be a better economic steward for America’s future. Both sides point to their past records as evidence of their fiscal responsibility – but those records can be skewed to suit any party’s agenda.
The biggest manipulation point in the 2012 campaign has to do with the so-called “Clinton surplus.” Former President Bill Clinton is on the campaign trail stumping for President Obama, using his own $236 billion budget surplus as evidence that a Democratic president is a better money manager than any Republican candidate. At the same time, Republicans say the deficit increased under President Clinton, proving that Democrats are lousy financial managers.
They’re both right in their own minds … and both completely missing the point when it comes to spending. Americans don’t want a president who can twist the numbers to make it look like he’s doing a good job – they want a president who will actually reduce our liabilities and get this country back in the black. To do that, we must put an end to fixing the numbers and quit electing politicians who’ve already proven they’re willing to tell economic lies on the campaign trail.
Budget Deficit vs. Debt
Politicians can get away with all kinds of financial lies out on the campaign trail partly because many Americans are depressingly ignorant about the major elements of our nation’s financial problems. They’re also confused about their personal finances – less than half of the country can explain how compound interest works, and only 34 percent of young adults understand how to balance a checkbook, according to the Financial Literacy Center. This lets politicians talk fast about the numbers, knowing that few – if any – audience members are going to call them out on their lies.
One tool politicians use against the American public is vocabulary. While many of us just think of what we owe as debt no matter where it came from, the government actually has multiple names for debt depending on how it was incurred. This is the verbal hair-splitting that lets former President Clinton feel that he can claim he generated a budget surplus at the same time the national debt increased – he’s talking about two different gaping holes in the government’s budget.
The budget Clinton is talking about on the campaign trail for Obama is the annual operating budget of the government, which is different from the ongoing national debt sheet. The annual operating budget runs Oct 1 to Sept 30 of the following year, while the national debt builds up continually. By ignoring how much we owe as a country overall and focusing just on twelve-month periods within the operating budget, Clinton can make dramatically different statements about the country’s financial health on a year over year basis.
Naturally, this sort of differentiation wouldn’t work for a regular households. If you are $500,000 in debt overall and manage to maintain that number instead of digging yourself in deeper, you probably still wouldn’t describe yourself as financially healthy. You’d say you have a problem – but politicians don’t talk that way. A $500,000 debt that doesn’t get (much) bigger year over year counts as smart money management in their books.
Another trick for the government is not exactly counting certain forms of internal debt. For example, when the government borrows money from Social Security revenues to cover operating expenses, this isn’t counted the same way as borrowing money from a bank. Why? Well, it’s all “our” money, right? So the government counts borrowed money as income, whereas the rest of the world calls it debt.
This is Clinton’s wiggle room in the eyes of his speechwriters and Obama’s campaign team. While he was in office, the nation came close to living within its budget, shrinking the annual deficit, which “proves” Democrats are smart money managers and even gives him a surplus using special government accounting methods. However, the part that his rosy speeches skip over is that his administration made no dent in the overall national deficit, and of course, that all that Social Security borrowing does have to be paid back one way or another when citizens start claiming their benefits.
In fact, according to the U.S. Treasury numbers for the time Clinton was in office, his current campaign trail speeches are economic lies to the nth degree using real-world numbers. The crew at the Treasury office has no incentive to lie – they just post the numbers. And the numbers clearly show that at no time during the Clinton presidency was there ever 1) a balanced budget or 2) a budget surplus using any kind of real-world accounting standards or 3) a reduction in the national debt.
One year, Clinton came within $18 billion of having a balanced budget – by the government’s standards. That’s his crowning achievement – only overspending by $18 billion one year, instead of overspending by more than $100 billion every other fiscal year of his presidency. Thus, his reputation as a “fiscal conservative” and “smart money manager” is false and any claims he’s making about Democrats being good financial stewards is little more than blown smoke.
Political Bonuses for Continual Lies
If Treasury Department numbers can so easily debunk the myth of the Clinton surplus, why is it still a part of the Obama campaign? American financial illiteracy is one problem, but so too are the political bonuses that Obama accrues with these continual lies and the soft handling he gets in the mainstream media.
Obama desperately needs to look like a good financial steward in this election. That’s his biggest weak spot – the economy stinks. So his team is trying to make the case that things would have been much worse if not for Obama – and they will be much, much worse if a Republican is elected. So they’re willing to trot out any argument that will hold water to make the case that Democrats in general and Obama in particular are good economic leaders.
Thus, Clinton is on the stump for Obama, repeating the tale of the “Clinton surplus” to whoever will listen. The media has always like Clinton, and they handle Obama with kid gloves. As a result, they paint a golden halo of fiscal responsibility around both Democratic leaders in their election coverage, helping to skew the public viewpoint.
Republicans don’t earn points for attacking the case based on the real facts. It’s written off as partisan bickering or dismissed as negative campaigning. Facts are boring. Financial details are tedious. Clinton and Obama, on the other hand, photograph well and make for good viewer numbers on TV, so the media has its own perverse incentives to let the smoke and mirrors game continue.
Even better, from Obama’s point of view? If Clinton were ever to truly get pinned down on his numbers, the black mark goes to Clinton’s record, further drawing attention away from Obama’s own dismal performance in office. The lying is a win-win game all around, unless you’re a member of the American public looking for the truth.
When Will Honesty Be the Best Policy?
Will there ever be a day when America has honest politicians? Probably not – not as long as we let our politicians get away with lying through their teeth when it comes to the hard facts o the national debt.
You can’t trust any of the current crop of Republicans or Democrats with the purse strings of the nation. They both have major incentives to keep fiddling with the numbers of our national debt so that we’ll keep electing them. The mantra of “honesty is the best policy” doesn’t seem to apply to campaigning – or at least that’s what Americans like to tell themselves.
The truth is that we get the politicians we want to have, and those politicians often reflect our own reluctance to deal with hard truths. Obama is using Clinton to tell us what we want to hear – the debt is no big deal, and voting for the right man will make the problem go away. It’s another lie, of course, but until we face up to the fact that we’ve elected over-spenders for years and vote those losers out, it will be more of the same. Our politicians need to quit lying to us, but they’ll only do it when we indicate at the ballot box that we’re ready to deal with the truth about our national debt, annual budget deficits, and the tough economic road ahead.
©2012 Off the Grid News