The Big Con

My husband and I were discussing the Council’s current standoff with the Ballard Administration–a dispute triggered by Ballard’s refusal to share budget information with the Council and other elected officials. That conversation brought back memories from our days in the Hudnut Administration; the then-Controller, Fred Armstrong, made himself available to Councilors, Department heads, the media….pretty much anyone who was interested in the intricacies of the budget. Fred would go on and on, explaining the numbers, funds, sources…

I don’t think anyone understood a word he said. I know I didn’t. It was the classic “bury them in bullshit,” and he was great at it. (He was also an incredibly competent public servant.)

Fred knew that most people don’t understand public finance. Our widespread fiscal ignorance is why Paul Ryan has been taken seriously, despite a budget that David Stockman, among others, has described as a “fantasy” and “devoid of credible math.” (Stockman, for those of you too young to remember, was Ronald Reagan’s very conservative Budget Director.)

Today’s candidates are counting on our ignorance of the most basic axioms of taxation and government revenue. It isn’t just that–as a colleague of mine put it recently–half of them clearly don’t know the difference between a marginal and effective tax rate. It’s that they engage in wishful, magical thinking.

Yesterday, I saw an ad for Mike Pence in which he promised to cut taxes “across the board,” and to establish an office of regulatory affairs that would resist federal regulations and return federal dollars.

I can’t decide if Pence is really that stupid, or he just thinks voters are.

There are legitimate issues around regulation–what is enough, what is too much. Reasonable people can differ over their assessments of particular rules. There is a pretty broad consensus that banking regulations were too lax, and that lack of oversight led to the Great Recession; there are certainly other areas where ham-handed regulatory policies have been distinctly unhelpful. But taking a position that all regulation is bad and must be resisted is insane. What about nursing home regulations that protect grandma from abuse? What about food and drug regulations that keep dog feces out of your beanie-weenies, or water purity standards, or building codes, or….Well, you get the point.

And how about that “cutting taxes across the board” and “sending the money back to the feds” promise?

Just how does our “I wanna be your governor” Pence propose to fund anything¬†Indiana needs? Federal dollars pay for our roads, augment our (increasingly inadequate) police forces, and provide medical care for the indigent. They feed schoolchildren and support special education programs. Federal dollars fund small businesses (yes, it turns out that even the angry guy in the anti-Obama commercial who insists that he and his sons built their business all by themselves had an 800,000 SBA loan). The federal government funds 33% of Indiana’s budget; if we sent that money back and cut taxes, Indiana’s government would come to a screeching halt.

The Ryans and the Pences of this world are counting on our ignorance. They are con men, hustlers secure in their (unfortunately reasonable) belief that voters don’t know where their tax dollars go, don’t recognize when they themselves benefit from government programs, and have no idea how their government works or what it does.

Con artists are successful because they tell us what we want to hear, because they promise us we can have something for nothing. The ugly truth is that the people who fall for the con are the people who want to believe they can get something for nothing.

Pence and Ryan are as reputable as that Nigerian banker who will send you a million dollars if you can just front him a few thousand.


  1. It is so important to continue to make every effort to educate the electorate. Thank you for your highly informed and well written analysis!!

  2. I sent Mattew Tully an E-mail in response to his column in the Star today. I pointed out that, as a long-time home owner in Indianapolis, I am aware that taking away the homestead exemption will essentially put more money in the pockets of Irsay and Simon and help fund the bid for a second Super Bowl so we can lose more money if it happens. I believe Pence, along with Ballard and Daniels, believes we are too ignorant to understand what they are doing to us. I understand it but don’t understand why so many people, especially women today, just go along wih whatever they do to contine lining pockets of the rich and keep Lucas Oil Stadium and Banker’s Life Fieldhouse filled to the rafters. To hell with education, public safety and safe infrastructure along with logic and common sense.

  3. Other than political hacksmanship, how is that any different than what everybody else in Washington is doing?

    The ONE budget Obama threw out there didn’t get a single vote from his own party. They haven’t demonstrated any leadership since then other than passing a bunch of piecemeal funding measures. And, obviously, the only reason the CBO rated Obamacare as ‘deficit neutral’ is because they were provided 10 years of spending cuts versus 6 years of spending. This has become the norm, not the exception.

    This has become so commonplace in politics I don’t think the America people even see it for what it is: spend all your time convincing people the other guy is a charlatan and you can sell snake oil all day long. If you’re opposed to Romney, Ryan, and Pence, that’s great. Can you articulate a substantive difference between them and the loyal opposition? On this issue, there isn’t one.

  4. well said and ditto re: about Pence/ Ryan/ Daniels/ Mittens, et al being con artists cuz that’s EXACTLY what they and unfortunately too many ‘Merkans are easily conned, cuz they’re ignorant and not taught ‘critical thinking’ skills…hell Texass Repugnants tried to pass legislation PREVENTING teachers from teaching critical thinking, WTF? (or as GW Bush would say, “is our children larnin’?”)

  5. With President Obama telling us that to not want a violence-ridden southern border is to want “alligators in the moat”, Vice-President Biden telling us that voting Republican is to put people back “in chains”, and Barney Frank telling us not to fret about Fannie Mae before the 2008 fiscal crash- would you like to acknowledge the “con artist” problem is a tad bipartisan?

    I have zero faith that either party elected to anything from dogcatcher to President will net an office devoid of corruption. You also left off Republican Senators John Ensign and the late Ted Stevens.

    But, are we to believe in the economics of if-we-feel- compassionate-about-it- therefore-it’s-affordable, or are we to acknowledge “limiting principles”, such as only so much money to go around? It seems to work that way when you’re short of change to buy the large cone at Dairy Queen.

  6. Unfortunately it will be the person with the biggest amount of supporters and the largest amount of money that will win. That means that no matter how hard we try to tell people the truth, the person who can afford to buy his was into office will win. How many Gregg advertisements have you seen? How many from Pence? When Pence says that he graduated from college, jobless with a child on the way, it made my mind up right away…I’ll vote for Gregg. Pence clearly admits to being thoughtless in his own life (a child when you don’t have a job, that’s shameful) therefore I would not want him to run my state.

  7. If Pence is like other politicians he will do exactly
    exactly as he says. Then he will turn around and boast, “I saved xxx dollars and I am returning it to the Federal Government. Meanwhile, the epeople who are counting on that money to run their necessary programs are hurting because they cannot do the quality job that is expected of them, and Pence will refuse to consider that a loss. After all he wouldn’t want to do anything that would punch a hole in his inflated ego.

  8. Below I have copied and pasted the response I received from Matthew Tully. Whatever the explanation of the homestead term; it still amounts to money out of homeowner’s pockets and into the pockets of Irsay and Simon. Read the description of $61 million worth of improvements to Banker’s Life Fieldhouse in the Star. Even with Mr. Tully’s explanation of the homested credit referred to in Ballard’s proposed budget; I stand behind my earlier statement.

    Hi. The mayor isn’t proposing an end to the homestead exemption. He is talking about the much smaller and less well-known homestead credit, which averages about $24 a month to those who get it — and many people do not. This is confusing because they both have the word homestead in it. But the homestead exemption, which is a big saver for most of us, is not being touched. MT

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