When it comes to taxes, this election presents a clear choice. On one side you have a Democrat who proposes to raise taxes. On the other, you have a Republican who proposes to raise taxes.
I know, I know, John McCain says he wants to do just the opposite. In the second presidential debate, he opened by declaring, "We have to keep Americans' taxes low. All Americans' taxes low. Let's not raise taxes on anybody today."
That's a big part of his appeal both to ordinary voters -- and to the 100 economists who signed a letter warning of the dire consequences of electing Barack Obama. Combined with his trade policies, they said, Obama's tax plan would "reduce economic growth and decrease the number of jobs in America."
But McCain's commitment to keeping taxes down is an illusion. Why? Because as soon as he had finished urging low taxes, he said he wants the Treasury to buy up bad mortgages and provide homeowners with new ones that they can afford. "Is it expensive?" he asked. "Yes."
No kidding. His campaign said his mortgage plan would cost $300 billion, though Chris Mayer, a real estate professor at Columbia University, told The Washington Post that's an understatement: "There's over $400 billion in negative equity sitting around the country right now and $300 billion is not going to come close to the magnitude of solving the problem."
McCain would have us think -- and he may even believe -- that you can increase spending by $300 billion and not raise taxes. That's like assuming that if you smoke two packs of cigarettes and don't wake up the next morning with lung cancer, you can do it every day at no risk to your health.
Reality stipulates that every government outlay has to be paid for. When the government enlarges spending by $300 billion, it can do one of three things. It can cut $300 billion in other spending. It can raise taxes by $300 billion. Or it can borrow money at interest, which adds yet more spending.
The last is what McCain wants to do. But he refuses to admit as much, or to acknowledge what it means. In the debate, he asked mournfully, "Do you know that we've laid a $10 trillion debt on these young Americans who are here with us tonight, $500 billion of it we owe to China?" His mortgage plan, though, would mean an even bigger debt -- and we can only hope the Chinese will keep lending us the funds to cover it.
If McCain raises overall spending, he can't avoid higher taxes. He can only delay them. Delayed tax increases have the same effect that those economists attribute to prompt ones: slower economic growth and fewer jobs.
The same criticisms, however, apply to Obama. His proposals would cost some $293 billion a year, according to the National Taxpayers Union Foundation -- compared to $92 billion a year for McCain. (And that doesn't include the cost of the financial sector bailout measures.)
Like McCain, he chooses not to pay for all of it. Compared to current policies, the Tax Policy Center says Obama would boost revenue by an average of just $60 billion per year. So of his new spending, only one-fifth would be financed with new revenue.
The Obama campaign says he would pay for some of his ventures by cutting existing programs. But he hasn't disclosed how. More than half of his budget cuts are "unspecified" -- another way of saying they are 1) imaginary or 2) not happening. Under Obama, the overall burden of government would grow. So would the national debt.
One of the most illuminating parts of the debate came when someone asked the candidates what sacrifices they would ask of Americans. McCain said that he would assess every federal program and "eliminate those that aren't working." Not that he could name one.
Obama was no more helpful. He encouraged Americans to conserve energy. Both of them vowed to take on ballooning entitlements, and both declined to explain how.
"They don't make any of the tough choices," despairs Maya MacGuineas, president of the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. "Not even close."
For all their differences, Obama and McCain agree on one central policy: to go on living in Fiscal Fairyland. It will be nice while it lasts.