The failure of the Congressional budget “super-committee” to address our geometrically expanding debt and deficits should surprise no one. From the beginning the committee was political theater designed to create the illusion of action when the will to act is missing. Unfortunately, this perennial bad habit of democracies to pursue short-time interests at the expense of long-term needs is now too dangerous to indulge.
The glory of constitutional government is its replacement of violence or coercion with speech and persuasion. But going back to ancient Athens, the primacy of verbal persuasion and processes makes it possible to substitute procedural words for actions when the courage or will to act is missing. The creation of committees, conferences, symposia, commissions of inquiry, and the like provides politicians with a ready answer to the citizens’ frustrated cry, “Why isn’t something being done?” Since few in government want to anger the voters by calling for the sacrifices and hard choices needed to put our fiscal house in order, creating a committee buys time and creates the illusion that “something is being done.” And we know where the reluctance to do anything comes from––making the hard choices necessary to deal with the impending fiscal apocalypse is attended by political costs that will have to be paid come the next election. Better to delay decisions until after November 2012, when the political stars will be better aligned one way or the other.
At this point many will be tempted into a “pox on both your houses” reaction, blaming Republicans and Democrats alike for the “gridlock” and “partisan politics” that are preventing a solution and letting us citizens down. But we should resist the lazy recourse to moral equivalency, which usually is a way to avoid making judgments about responsibility and culpability. Just look at the Israeli-Arab conflict, where a specious moral equivalency has let the Arab instigators of violence and disorder off the hook. So too with the current fiscal crisis, which is the result of overspending and the growth of the federal government. Thus the “fair and balanced” solution touted by the President––combining tax increases with cuts to federal programs––may sound good superficially, but will not solve the problem.
Quite clearly, the problem is spending, not revenues. When 40 cents of every dollar of GDP is spent by the government, when entitlement spending on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and Obamacare will devour all of federal income tax revenue by 2050, when debt is near 100% of GDP, when the latest deficit has reached a historical high of 8.7% of GDP, confiscating all of this country’s personal and corporate wealth, let alone raising top rates, will not balance our books. In fact, the International Monetary Fund estimates that all federal taxes would have to be increased 88% just to keep entitlement spending at current levels and to keep debt from growing. Moreover, history confirms Milton Friedman’s observation that “Politicians will always spend every penny of tax raised and whatever else they can get away with.” Research by Richard Vedder and Stephen Moore shows that between World War II and 2009, every dollar of new tax revenue led to $1.17 in spending. Finally, most promises of spending cuts made to justify tax increases have not been kept, like the $3 of promised cuts that never materialized after Reagan’s 1982 tax increase, or the phantom cuts that sold George H.W. Bush on raising taxes in 1990.
For Democrats to insist, then, on $1 trillion in tax hikes without any substantive reform of entitlement spending was to negotiate in bad faith, not to mention forgetting their own President’s admonition about raising taxes during a recession. Nor should we think that $1.2 trillion of spending cuts over ten years triggered by the committee’s failure is going to solve our problems––assuming Congress does nothing to stop the cuts, something John McCain has vowed to do. According to Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center, the so-called “spending cuts” are actually reductions in overall growth. Projections show that over the next decade, spending will increase $1.7 trillion without the cuts, and $1.6 trillion with them. Given the enormity of our debt and future commitments, this amounts to a rounding error.
Finally, blaming a “do-nothing Congress,” as Obama does, or cursing both parties for partisan “gridlock” let’s all of us off the hook. The President clearly intends to run a class-warfare campaign that blames heartless Republicans for our woes because they want to protect their wealthy patrons at the expense of the poor and elderly. We had a preview this May in the New York special congressional election, when ads appeared showing a Paul Ryan look-alike pushing an old lady in a wheelchair over a cliff, and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote that the Republicans’ demands for budget cuts “are literally stealing food from the mouths of babes.” Obama himself had set the stage for such rhetoric when he claimed that the Ryan plan embodied a “vision that says America can’t afford to keep the promises we’ve made to care for our seniors,” who the President alleged would have to pay $6,000 more for health care to finance “tax cuts for the wealthy.” But these Mediscare and class-warfare tactics will succeed only if enough voters endorse their dishonest logic. Unfortunately, a critical mass of Americans are addicted to government spending, and so are invested in keeping entitlement spending high and continuing other redistributions of income. Like the democratic mob in Polybius’ history of Rome, these voters prefer a government that uses its power to benefit those who are “habituated to feed at the expense of others, and to have [their] hopes of a livelihood in the property of [their] neighbors.”
Moral equivalence, then, is an evasion of our own responsibility. As the details of the super-committee collapse show, the contrast between the parties is clear: the Republicans want to cut spending without tax increases that inhibit economic growth; the Democrats want to raise taxes and increase spending without making substantial or meaningful reductions in the big three entitlement programs––which is another way of saying that they want to continue to redistribute wealth whatever the long-term cost. If the Democrats prevail, the fault will ultimately lie with those who put them in office.
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