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The Left Corrects Sanders's Fuzzy Math

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Bernie Sanders is something new: a Democratic candidate who is not pretending to represent the party of fiscal responsibility and balanced budgets. That's always been a pretty big bluff anyway. When other Democrats made that claim, it rested entirely on the boom years of the Clinton administration, which brought the only budget surplus since 1969. But Sanders has dropped the act.

His budget plans are full of the sorts of frankly unbelievable numbers that would make a con man blush: massive projected cuts in health-care costs, a sudden doubling of the growth rates of GDP and productivity, enormous revenue forecast from small and easily avoidable taxes. Sanders is easily competitive with Donald Trump for “Most Imaginary Numbers in a Policy Platform” and “Most Politically Unrealistic Claims About What His Administration Will Achieve.”

But while the wonks in the right hemisphere of the political world have mostly been standing around gaping, too aghast at their party's outliers to even know what to say, their counterparts on the left have struck back. Four former members of the Council of Economic Advisers under Democratic administrations recently penned a scathing open letter about the Sanders fairy-tale promises, in which they lamented that this would undermine their efforts to make the Democrats the party of evidence-based policy.

Needless to say, I applaud their efforts, and wish that some Republican economists would unleash comparable opprobrium on the absurd promises that Republicans are making about growing the economy through the magic of supply-side tax cuts. Unfortunately, as Clay Shirky recently argued on Twitter, both political parties seem to be turning into host organisms for third-party insurgencies. Like all parasites, these insurgents are prepared to shut down unnecessary functions that hamper their goals -- such as the policy analysis infrastructure that once tried to keep each side middling-honest.

The idea of Democrats as center-left technocrats, less interested in ideology than in whether the numbers add up, came in with the Clintons. Even if Hillary Clinton beats back Sanders and takes the presidency, it will probably be the last we see of that pragmatism.

The younger generation of Democrats, the future of the party, isn’t looking to be told that they can do 4.726 percent better under a Democrat than under a Republican. They’re looking for the kind of transformational change that Sanders promises. And they’re bound to be impatient with wonks who demand that they provide a detailed analysis of a future that doesn’t yet exist outside of their dreams.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net