Paul Krugman Just Made a Simple Mathematical Mistake

Business Insider
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Aug. 5 2013 10:31 AM

Paul Krugman Against Reality

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Oh, SNAP.

Photo by MIKE CLARKE/AFP/Getty Images

This post originally appeared in Business Insider.

By Josh Barro

In his column this morning, headlined "Republicans Against Reality," Paul Krugman writes that "the modern G.O.P. is lost in fantasy, unable to participate in actual governing." One example from last week, per Krugman: "House leaders announced plans to hold a vote cutting spending on food stamps in half."

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But House leaders did no such thing. The Republican plan is actually a 5 percent cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, commonly known as food stamps), up from the 2.5 percent cut they were seeking previously. Krugman seems to have taken the $40 billion in cuts that Republicans are proposing over a 10-year budget window and mistakenly applied them to a single year—thus turning a 5 percent cut into 50 percent.

Krugman may have missed this because he's been misled by his own paper's coverage of the issue. He links to an August 1 Times article about the new Republican proposal, which has a headline saying Republicans want to "Slash Food Stamps," and which doesn't provide the context that the $40 billion cut would be off a spending baseline of about $780 billion. If a store ran an ad saying it was "slashing prices," you would probably assume the discounts were a good bit larger than 5 percent. Now, I don't think a 5 percent cut in SNAP (or even a 2.5 percent cut) is a good policy idea. But part of what makes Congress' paralysis on this issue so frustrating is that Republicans and Democrats are actually fighting over a fairly marginal difference of opinion on how generous SNAP should be.

Too often, the media coverage has exaggerated the depth of the proposed Republican cuts and therefore the size of the policy difference between the parties. The media's failure here is similar to how they dropped the ball last week on President Obama's corporate tax reform proposal. The Obama plan is for a slight net tax increase, with broadening of the corporate tax base more than offsetting cuts in tax rates. He'd then spend the added revenue on infrastructure and community colleges.

It's obvious why Republicans would oppose a plan to raise taxes and raise spending. But many media outlets reported the plan as a tax cut, leading pundits to condemn the GOP for simply opposing anything Obama supported, even if it was something they should like, such as a corporate tax cut. If you want to argue that today's Republican Party is dumb and incoherent and extreme and petty, there is ample evidence at your disposal. There's no need to distort the party's policy stances to make the point.