11/20/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

McCain Plan: Repeal Arithmetic


The long-awaited McCain Plan for the economy has finally been leaked.

The Republican presidential nominee keeps saying that he will balance the budget by the end of the four-year term he would serve if elected on November 4th.

At the final debate last Wednesday, moderator Bob Schieffer asked the candidates, "Do either of you think you can balance the budget in four years? You have said previously you thought you could, Sen. McCain."

Sen. McCain's response was of his usual decisive, don't-bother-me-with-the-facts-and-figures sort: "Sure I do. And let me tell you . . . ."

"You can still do that?" Schieffer inquired.

"Yes. . . . I will balance our budgets and I will get them and I will . . . ."

"In four years?" an incredulous Schieffer interrupted.

". . . reduce this -- I can," McCain proclaimed.

McCain had the gall to make this statement, which is reminiscent of H. Ross Perot's favorite, "It's just that simple," at a time when the federal deficit has just skyrocketed to a half-trillion dollars and the federal government is spending in various multiples of a hundred billion dollars to deal with the financial and economic crisis, meaning that next year's deficit may reach $1 trillion.

On top of all that, Mr. McCain wants to cut everybody's taxes, engage in even more military actions, and . . . so on and on.

And, he says the last thing we should be doing in the face of a recession is raising anyone's taxes, so he would have to eliminate the trillion dollar deficit entirely by spending cuts. But cutting spending in a recession would have the same sort of negative effect on the economy that he says raising taxes would.

Voodoo Economics Squared

There is precedent for Mr. McCain's literally incredible promise to balance an already enormously imbalanced budget while increasing military spending, cutting taxes, and preserving the "social safety net." Ronald Reagan made such a pledge in 1980.

At that time, Republican John Anderson said the only way to do it was "with smoke and mirrors." George H.W. Bush called Reagan's proposals "Voodoo Economics."

John McCain's promise to balance the budget is Voodoo Squared.

But to understand what that means, someone has to understand enough simple mathematics to know what "squared" means.

A Constitutional Amendment Repealing Arithmetic

John McCain says he's going to take an ax to the budget. He must also be planning to take an ax to mathematics. Addition and subtraction and all that stuff is just for intellectual elites from the "un-American" parts of the United States, anyway.

All of this adds up--my apologies for mentioning such an elite concept as addition--to the McCain Plan. To do what he is promising, his first step must be to push through a constitutional amendment repealing arithmetic.

Historian Robert S. McElvaine is Elizabeth Chisholm Professor of Arts & Letters at Millsaps College. His latest book is Grand Theft Jesus: The Hijacking of Religion in America 2008-07-01-GTJcoversm.jpg (Crown). He is currently at work on a book on America in the 1960s, Oh, Freedom! (Norton).