Mitt Romney’s critics have had a lot of fun with the recent report from the Tax Policy Center proclaiming the Republican presidential candidate’s tax proposal “mathematically impossible.” Romney’s supporters, meanwhile, have struck back, insisting that the report relies on assumptions that Romney’s plan doesn’t make.
I don’t want to get into the middle of that tussle. More fascinating to me as a wordsmith is the report’s use of the term “mathematically impossible.” Because the claim is that Romney’s numbers don’t add up, many a lexicographer will immediately protest that the proper qualifier is “arithmetically,” not “mathematically.”
Still, either way, the phrase implies a claim refuted with scientific exactitude, as if I were to say that all the people in the world weigh more than all the insects in the world. (The insects win, by a 2-to-1 margin. Sorry.)
“Impossible” is a strong word. In ordinary usage, a thing is impossible when, as the Oxford English Dictionary says, “it cannot be done or effected.” U.S. contract law, for example, distinguishes between a claim that performance of a promise is impossible and a claim that performance is more difficult or expensive than expected. The first is a defense; the second usually isn’t. A painter who dies is freed from his obligation to paint a picture, but the painter who protests that the price of his materials has skyrocketed must generally perform or pay damages.
In politics, however, the assertion that something is “impossible” rarely means that. Robert Caro, in “The Passage of Power,” the latest volume of his biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, reminds us of the widespread opinion among pundits in the early 1960s that passage of a civil-rights bill was “impossible.” Nobody thought the assassination of John F. Kennedy had changed the political outlook. The concern wasn’t that Congress was constitutionally incapable of enacting such legislation: The word “impossible” meant only that it was unlikely to occur.
I believe this is the sort of impossibility that the good people at the Tax Policy Center had in mind. The center’s analysis rests on the presumption that although Romney promises to cut all tax rates by 20 percent and to eliminate unspecified deductions, he would never touch the exclusion from taxation of either savings in life-insurance policies or earnings from municipal bonds. Romney’s defenders note that he has not said a word about protecting those exclusions. But the center isn’t saying it is mathematically impossible to make these cuts; really, the report merely predicts that they won’t be made.
Thus, what the report really means (and presumably would have said, but for the need to grab headlines) is that no matter what any president proposes, Congress will never repeal those exemptions. If one believes this is true, then the correct description of Romney’s plan is not “mathematically impossible,” but “politically impossible.”
What we need is a scale along which to measure the likelihood of various political ideas that critics consider impossible, so that we will not be forced to reach for attention-getting, but formally inaccurate, claims about mathematics and logic.
Which is just what the physicist Michio Kaku proposes for science in his delightful little book “Physics of the Impossible.” He divides things that scientists think can’t be done into three categories, providing a useful model for our political debates.
In Kaku’s typology, Class I impossibilities are ideas that violate no physical laws but that we are a long way from figuring out how to do; Class II includes those things not forbidden by the laws of physics but sitting “at the very edge of our understanding” -- things that, “if possible at all,” would probably not come into existence for hundreds or even thousands of years; Class III comprises “technologies that violate the known laws of physics” -- that is, they could not be constructed without “a fundamental shift in our understanding of physics.”
Creating an analogous set of categories to organize political ideas is relatively straightforward. Class I would include things that seem within the capacity of our politics, even though we have little idea so far how to achieve them. Class II would be those things at the outer edge of political possibility, not likely to come about for many decades. (I won’t say millenniums, as Kaku does, because I won’t presume that our politics will last as long as our technologies.) Class III would include those things that are not possible within our politics as understood. In this category would be, among other things, those that are clearly unconstitutional.
A couple of years ago, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson warned that real control of health-care costs will be “virtually impossible to achieve” as long as patients keep insisting that only other people’s care -- not their own -- be cut back. Robinson’s claim was not that some formal logical impediment exists, only that the task is politically difficult. This use of the word plainly belongs to Class I.
Also in Class I would be Theodore Roosevelt’s coy insistence in 1916 that his strident advocacy for U.S. entry into what would become World War I had made it “impossible” for him to be nominated by the Republicans for president. He wasn’t nominated -- he finished sixth at the convention -- but the political winds might well have shifted in his favor. In short, his nomination wasn’t impossible at all, just highly unlikely.
The argument that passing civil-rights legislation in 1964 was impossible represents at most an example of Class II. Racial segregation at the time was deeply entrenched not only in law but in politics. To get his bill, Johnson had, in effect, to turn the nation’s politics on its axis, spinning the legislative process in a direction few believed it could take. In the end, however, he prevailed.
What about Class III impossibilities -- those that require us to rethink the entire political process as we know it? Our politics are remarkably supple. Apart from blatant unconstitutionalities -- a president who arbitrarily awards himself a third term, say -- Class III may well be an empty set. After all, not long ago most Americans would probably have placed into this category the possibility that a black man would soon be elected president.
True, many observers would consider serious entitlement reform a Class III impossibility, but I think it belongs in Class II or even Class I: In the case of Social Security and Medicare, we know what has to be done. The question is whether we have the will to do it.
If Romney defeats President Barack Obama in November, and if he then proposes eliminating the popular exclusions that the Tax Policy Center says he wouldn’t dare touch, he would face only a Class I impossibility. No matter how sacred investors and others might hold them, and no matter how much money their supporters might shower on congressional chairmen, popular loopholes have been repealed before. The task is surely easier than passing a civil-rights bill at a time when both houses of Congress were largely controlled by segregationists.
Ambitious political programs, whether foolish or wise, are often difficult to achieve. But “impossible”? Maybe we should leave that word to the mathematicians.
(Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama,” and his most recent novel is “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.”)
Today’s highlights: the editors on the U.S.’s ethanol policy and on Israel’s threat to strike Iran; Noah Feldman on Egypt’s democratic coup; William Pesek on reviving India’s economy; Amity Shlaes on lessons of the lobster trade; Jonathan Weil on Standard Chartered’s money laundering settlement; Adam Kirsch on presidential weakness in the novel “Primary Colors.”
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