Warning: Story About Substance

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Don’t bother to read it. It’s Monday. It’s summer. Surf over to Perez Hilton, instead. (Shia got a DUI!) Or have a debate at the water cooler about John McCain’s dogs or Barack Obama’s hip. It’s not like we are electing a president who has to have policies that are actually real. My new story for TIME.com is about how both candidates are playing fast and loose with budget numbers to attack their opponents while failing to spell out the fine print of their own plans. Be especially sure NOT to read what Doug Holtz-Eakin makes clear about McCain’s tax rhetoric:

Almost by definition, candidate sound bites are meant to obscure as much as they reveal. And nowhere is that more apparent than when politicians are talking about their economic policies. Take this one for instance: “The choice in this election is stark and simple,” John McCain said at recent Denver event, repeating a phrase that is a staple of his stump speech. “Senator Obama will raise your taxes. I won’t.”

Seems clear enough, right? It’s an old argument you already know — Republicans cut taxes, Democrats raise them. Except it’s not true, at least not in the way that it seems. But don’t take my word for it. Here is Douglas Holtz-Eakin, McCain’s chief economic policy adviser. “I used to say that Barack Obama raises taxes and John McCain cuts them, and I was convinced,” he told me in a phone interview this week. “I stand corrected.”

That’s because the policies proposed by Obama are, unlike sound bites, actually complicated. He would raise taxes on those who make more than about $200,000, in some cases by significant amounts, through increases in taxes on capital gains, dividends and regular income. But Obama has also proposed a whole range of other tax cuts, for health care expenses, poor seniors, working people, homeowners, parents and even renewable energy. The net effect, according to experts in both campaigns and independent analysts, is a reduction in government revenue over 10 years. In other words, a tax cut.

But don’t expect McCain to change his rhetoric on the stump. That’s not how this game is played. On Wednesday, the Obama campaign put out a press release claiming that McCain’s economic plan was “$2.8 trillion more expensive than his advisers previously admitted.” These were ominous words, playing into the old storyline about Republicans using budget gimmickry. But it is largely based on an interpretation of a tax plan — for an optional alternative income tax system with a flat rate — that McCain has never described in detail, let alone with enough specificity to gauge. And it uses a budgetary scoring system that the Obama campaign rejects in calculations of its own proposals.