Donald Trump has promised to pay off the entire national debt within 4 years:

“We’re going to pay off debt — the $35 trillion in debt. We’re going to pay it off. We’re going to get it done fast, too.”

I am supposed to be an economic commentator.  So perhaps I should do my civic duty and evaluate this economic policy proposal.

Federal revenue is less than $5 billion trillion per year.  Thus even if spending were cut to zero, it would require huge tax increases to pay off the debt in 4 years.  But spending cannot be cut to zero, as the government is legally required to pay interest on the debt.  That means even more massive tax increases would be needed.

One possibility is that Trump is proposing that non-interest spending, including the military and Social Security and Medicare all be reduced to zero for 4 years, and that all of the tax rates be roughly doubled during that period.  And even that may not be enough, due to “Laffer Curve” effects.

Another possibility is that Trump is not serious; he’s making the promise to repay the national debt because it sounds good.  That raises the question of whether any political promise should be taken seriously.  Why even watch the debates?

One response is that voters are able to distinguish between sincere promises and insincere promises.  But I doubt that voters are that smart.  I recall back in 2017 chatting with a trucker who was excited about Trump’s promise to rebuild our infrastructure.  I was excited by Joe Biden’s promise not to build a wall on the southern border.  In fact, Trump never even proposed a major infrastructure initiative.  Biden abandoned his promise not to build a wall.  And yet these promises initially seemed much more plausible than the promise to repay the entire national debt.

We are frequently told that we should be good citizens, and evaluate candidates based on their campaign promises.  But I suspect that people that make that claim are not being serious.  Very few people would vote for Trump if they truly believed that he would double tax rates and cut Social Security and the military to zero.  (Or keep some of that spending and triple tax rates.)  Instead, I suspect that what the elite actually want voters to do is become mind readers—figure out which promises are sincere and which promises are fluff.  But that’s harder than it seems!

Back in 2017, I would have expected Trump to propose major new infrastructure.  He’s a guy that likes to build big projects.  I would have expected Trump to pull the US out of Afghanistan.  He did neither.  I would not have expected Trump to back prison reform that reduced the term of drug dealers.  He did so.  Now he’s promising to repeal Obamacare.  Will he do so?  I have no idea.  He says he’ll immediately end the war in Ukraine.  But how?  Surrender?  I have no idea.  He says we should kill drug dealers.  Will he do so?  I have no idea.  And would that death penalty apply to people working in retail establishments selling drugs where state law says it’s OK but federal law says it’s a felony?  What exactly is a drug dealer?  Is it someone who sells narcotics in a way that violates federal law?

As I get older, I increasingly discount the promises made by politicians.  Instead, I focus on character.  Which candidate has the most integrity?  In the long run, I suspect that character is what matters most.

PS.  If we had a parliamentary system in the US, then I’d vote based on “the issues”.  But we don’t.

PPS.  One might argue that we could look at Trump’s first term.  But Trump has promised a radically different approach in his second term, staffing his administration with Trumpian populists rather than old line Republicans (as in his first term).