Visualizing the Romney Tax Debate

Tax reform has emerged as a major bone of contention in the 2012 Presidential election campaign. While President Obama has identified some tax changes, Governor Romney proposes major systemic reform. But is his plan – especially the proposals for individual taxation – viable?

The critics say the individual taxation component of his plan is not viable - indeed that it is not even mathematically possible. This is a very strong claim, since a plan that is mathematically possible may fall short on other tests such as distributional equity and economic efficiency – let alone political saleability.

In the debate that has ensued, a paper produced by the Tax Policy Center has occupied center stage. Just about all the critics have taken this analysis as their starting point – and Romney has countered by submitting a list of other studies which, he contends, refute the TPC analysis.

In this map we aim to produce a comprehensive visualization of this debate. It includes all the major lines of criticism of the TPC analysis, along with arguments of both critics and defenders from the media and blogosphere. We attempt to identify all the essential arguments for both sides, without repetition, rebuttals of them - and rebuttals of rebuttals. We also aim to depict the relationships and dependencies between the various studies that have been cited in the debate.
Poster created by Peter Baldwin on 10:30 PM 1 November 2012 GMT

What is the 'debate graph'?

DebateGraph is an interactive web tool for visualizing complex problems in public policy and other areas.

The 'graph' in DebateGraph refers to an inter-connected set of concepts - issues, positions taken in response to them, arguments adduced for and against - and a range of other possibilities that make up the graph's 'ontology'. Each concept is represented by either a sphere or a rectangle, color coded to represent its semantic significance (e.g. green for support, red for opposition). As in network theory we term each concept representation a 'node' (mathematical pedants might say 'vertices' instead)

The basic idea is to reveal the logical structure of complex controversies – such as the debate about Mitt Romney's tax plan. The concepts (nodes) in the graph are connected by arrows that each represent a particular kind of relationship between one node the other. Arrows may be single headed (as with the relationship 'supports') or double headed (as with 'equivalence'. So a position taken in a debate may be supported by an argument that has a set of premises – and each such premise may need to be supported, producing an 'argument tree'.

As you click around the map you will see each node expressed in full detail with supportive citations and embedded multimedia items where appropriate.

About the Author – Peter Baldwin

Peter BaldwinI am a former Australian politician – a member of the Australian House of Representatives for 15 years. For six of those years I was a minister with responsibilities that included social security and education. I served for a time on the Cabinet committee responsible for reviewing all budgetary expenditures.

Having experienced budgetary dilemmas from the inside and other complex policy issues I developed an interest in the field of argument mapping and visualization. The current US debate over economic policy – which bears on people around the world – is a timely and critical subject to explore with DebateGraph.

Explore the graph...

The map of the Romney tax debate has over a hundred nodes, so far. So, what are the best ways to start exploring?

We have suggested some strategies below:
  1. Start at the top: You can start at the the top of the map (the Map node) which describes in broad terms the subject matter of the map. To this is attached the Romney's plan stated node which simply states his proposal. To this is attached the main issue addressed in the map – But does it compute  Click this to start exploring the issue. Then keep clicking the bubbles, following the branches that seem most pertinent.

  2. Or cut to the chase: Both supporters and critics agree that the impetus for this debate was the study by the Tax Policy Center that claimed the plan just did not add up – was a mathematical impossibility. You can jump straight in here to see the TPC case outlined - and the four main lines of criticism of it to have emerged in the debate. Keep clicking the bubbles to explore each of these lines.

  3. Jump to the protagonists: This debate has engaged some of the best economic minds in the country – on both sides. We have grouped all these under the Protagonists with separate sub-nodes for supporters and defenders of the Romney plan. Each protagonist is connected to locations in the graph where their arguments are cited – for example.
...or view the snapshots (below) of selected parts of the map that shed light on specific aspects of the debate.
Snapshot – What about growth?

Snapshot – What about growth?

Of the several lines of criticism of the Tax Policy Center analysis of the Romney plan, the most contentious was the TPC's use of a 'static' analysis that did not include an assessment of  the impact of fundamental tax reform on economic performance. This snapshot depicts this aspect of the debate.

Notice that the arrows flow toward the node The TPC case via the node Growth effect claim. The latter is one of the key premises of the TPC argument – the claim that no significant growth effect can be expected to result from tax reform. This is challenged by the Ignores growth potential node - which is disputed by the TPC but supported by the claim that credible studies confirm that tax reform of the Romney type would boost GDP - and revenue.

See now that nodes identifying three studies now flow into the Growth-supportive studies node from Rosen, Entin/McBride and Feldstein respectively. Of these the first two employ simulations using economic growth models –  Rosen actually relies on a simulation by Diamond, which in turn on a separate labor market study, to provide a growth estimate which underpins his revenue calculation. The Entin/McBride paper on the other hand contains both a growth simulation and a calculation of the resulting budgetary impact.

The studies have been criticized and supported at a number of points. Click the bubbles to explore the immediate context and details – and unpin the view to explore the wider context of the debate.
Open view »