Is that politician or pundit making valid economic arguments, or just distracting you with flashy, partisan talking points to gain ground for their candidacy or "team?"
Here are a few things that every Independent voter and thinker should look out for:
The Bait and Switch
For reasons that should be readily apparent, always remember that the party in power is more inclined to raise spending and taxes, while the party out of power will attempt to sound like the most miserly fiscal hawks to ever sit in Congress.
Watch for the instant 180 degree turns when the parties switch sides and carefully note which politicians go along with the party-line and which maintain a consistent position whether or not their party is in or out of power. For eight years under the Bush Administration, the Republicans ran deficits up to levels unprecedented in U.S. history, but by the time the Democrats had control of the White House and both houses of Congress, the Republicans suddenly discovered that America had a deficit problem. By the same token, many Democrats who lauded Clinton's surpluses and criticized Bush's deficits (remember that MoveOn.org commercial with the little kids working to pay off the national debt?) have contributed to even higher deficits under Obama. Independent voters should not tolerate or reward disingenuous fiscal "hawks."
The Symbolic Gesture
Just a reminder: the U.S. federal budget and even its deficit are now measured in trillions of dollars. When a politician speaks of cutting millions in wasteful spending, while that number seems like a lot to those of us in the 99%, it is substantively of no consequence to the overall federal budget and economy, and when politicians disproportionately focus on such small cuts to show off how friendly they are to the taxpayer, they are being disingenuous and condescending, especially if they turn around and vote for massive increases in federal spending while styling themselves as fiscally responsible.
Remember when President Obama and a complicit mainstream media made much ado about cutting a measly $100 million even as Congress passed budgets with deficits even bigger than President Bush's? It was embarrassing. And many Republicans are guilty of the same thing. Last year in a single day, the Republican-controlled House voted to cut funding to NPR while voting against a bill to end the war in Afghanistan, where most of Al Qaeda had already been killed or captured. The open-ended occupation in Central Asia is costing the taxpayer hundreds of billions of dollars, while defunding NPR may have trimmed a measly $10 million from the deficit.
The Tax Distraction
The entire fiscal policy debate in this country is perennially centered on tax policy, but this is a major distraction. As I have argued here before: Restricting the national conversation to tax cuts effectively prevents any real fiscal reform from ever happening on Capitol Hill. That’s because cutting taxes without cutting spending isn’t really cutting taxes at all. It’s deferring taxes to the future. Imagine yourself in financial trouble, worrying over how much of your expenses you should pay with cash and how much you should pay with credit cards, but you never even consider reducing your expenses. The “debate” over tax cuts in recent months is about that absurd. And when you cut taxes without cutting spending (or worse, while growing spending), you subject taxpayers to an even greater financial obligation than if you had not cut their taxes at all.
In the end, the only true tax cut is a spending cut, but both parties will brag about cutting taxes while they actually help raise spending financed through borrowing, still putting taxpayers on the hook for that spending in the future while subtly taxing their consumption now through the inflation driven by the government's endless borrowing of dollars created out of thin air at the Federal Reserve. Republicans brag about Bush's tax cuts, but they also raised spending, so taxes weren't cut at all. Democrats brag about Obama's middle class tax cuts, but they also raised spending, and likewise, taxes weren't really cut at all. If these tax cuts aren't real, then they're just partisan talking points for winning campaigns and pleasing voters with fiscally responsible rhetoric while pleasing lobbyists with fiscally irresponsible, debt-financed appropriations.
Reverse Wealth Redistribution
Most Republicans will say that they oppose wealth redistribution as fundamentally un-American and harmful to those it purports to help by creating incentives for bad decisions. But Independent voters should pay close attention to which of those same Republicans voted for the TARP bailouts in 2008, which redistributed hundreds of billions of dollars in wealth from hard working poor and middle class Americans to wealthy Wall Street Banks. If confiscating money from the wealthy to give to the poor is wrong, just what moral status should we assign to confiscating money from the poor to give to the wealthy? The stock character of the Republicans' political narrative has been the welfare queen, freeloading off of taxpayer dollars, but many of them conveniently ignore the biggest welfare queens of all: wealthy, well-connected corporations that lobby for their profits instead of producing them.
And if many Republican politicians and their cheerleaders in the media are guilty in this regard, how much more guilty should we consider many of their Democratic counterparts? If anyone has a reason to oppose "reverse wealth redistribution" from the poor to the 1%, it's Democrats. Unlike the Republican rhetoric, which is simply anti-redistribution, Democratic rhetoric takes it a step further and says that the wealthy should contribute back to society and help fund a "safety net" for the poor and less advantaged. Isn't it even more absurd then, for a Democrat to support taking money from the 99% to give to the 1%? Yet that is what happened when the Democratically-controlled House passed TARP. On the basis of their own separate moral frameworks, neither party should ever support money leaving the hands of a less wealthy individual and ending up in the hands of a more wealthy one. So it shouldn't ever happen, right? Only if those of us who mean it, hold those politicians who don't accountable.
The Seen and the Unseen
One more simple tip for critical thinkers and independent voters is to remember that politicians will always brag about what can be seen as a result of their policies, while neglecting to mention (or maybe even consider) the unseen effects of their policies. Oh your pet appropriation would help x number of people in x number of ways? At what cost? Where does the money for that appropriation come from, and how does the politician know that it will be better spent as part of their pet project than it would have been otherwise? What might be some of the unintended consequences of the project? Don't focus exclusively on the direct result of a program or policy to the neglect of the opportunity cost and the secondary and tertiary results of that program or policy. Politicians will always tout the direct results, and they'll always sound good, and they might even be good, but that doesn't mean the policy is a net positive when all things are considered.
In the middle of an economic crisis with no clear end in sight, there may be a lot of "good" policies out there with a bad cumulative net result.