It's the nature of our politics that we allow our politicians wide latitude when they make promises about the future. More often than not, this is the triumph of hope over reason, but it's the small probabilities that sustain us in this optimism. It's because we know it's actually possible to solve problems - even if in our hearts we know certain individuals lack the courage or the competence to get it done - that we continue to give them some benefit of our doubt.
But what are we to believe when our politicians start to make promises that are beyond improbable and enter the realm of impossibility?
My case in point is the report last week from the Social Security and Medicare trust funds that said the country's unfunded obligations to future retirees have grown to $63 trillion.
The fund trustees reported that the Social Security disability fund is projected to run out of money in 2016, that the Medicare Hospital Insurance Fund will run out in 2024 and that Social Security will have "negative cash flow," starting in 2037.
Yet rather than making even the most improbable promises about how he will fix this mess, the president continued to campaign on a promise to "protect" Social Security and Medicare by preventing changes to either program. And that promise, by any measure, is beyond impossible.
In order to cover the $63 trillion "shortfall" in Social Security and Medicare and "protect" the programs from cuts or reforms, the government would have to confiscate every dollar of every wage every American earned in the past five years.
It's almost an incomprehensible amount of money, and the truth is that anyone, including the president, who tells you that the shortfall can be made up has ventured far beyond improbable political promises. It's a whole new level of political cynicism based on a presumption of voter ignorance. And sadly, with a large number of voters, it appears to be working.
How else can you explain why some audiences applaud when the president attacks Paul Ryan, the one man in Congress with the courage to put forward a real plan to save both Medicare and Social Security? You can disagree with Ryan, and you can counter his proposals, but how can anyone with even a shred of decency attack the only person genuinely trying to fix a problem when no one else will?
Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin and chairman of the House Budget Committee, has proposed several changes to both Social Security and Medicare that would reduce but not eliminate the problem.
His Social Security proposal does not cut expenditures but rather slows the growth of future increases. He also proposes to gradually raise the retirement age for people who are 55 or younger because Americans are living longer, healthier lives than they did when Social Security and Medicare were enacted.
His Medicare proposal also makes no changes for current recipients but changes the program for future retirees by giving them guaranteed financial assistance for purchasing private health insurance rather than guaranteed coverage of medical claims.
The president, who has no plan of his own to reform either Social Security or Medicare, says the Ryan plan is "radical social Darwinism" and that he would veto it if it ever got through Congress.
Think about that: With a $63 trillion hole, Ryan suggests slowing the growth of future expenditures and making a small adjustment in eligibility criteria so that most of the benefits are there for future retirees. And rather than offering to work with Ryan or offer a plan of his own, our president is trying to demonize the only person and only viable plan for fixing our two most important social programs.
For his part, the president seems to believe ,or would at least like the voters to believe, that we can fix these problems by socking it to the rich - only that math doesn't add up, either. If the president had his way and increased taxes on people making more than $250,000, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the government would collect about $70 billion more each year in taxes. Even over 10 years, those revenues wouldn't even cover 2 percent of the shortfall.
And what about the president's hallmark proposal to tax all millionaires a minimum of 30 percent? As it turns out, most already are paying that amount, so despite all of the president's bluster, it would only bring in about $4 billion per year - enough to fund Social Security and Medicare for about a day.
Apparently, in the president's world, numbers no longer need to add up. And as Abraham Lincoln said, you can fool some of the people all of the time.
Let's just hope that in the case of the coming election the basic rules of math still apply and "some of the people" doesn't add up to most of the people.