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The dog that didn't bark

The debate over the Republican tax-cut proposal was most revealing for what was missing -- serious discussion of our staggering national debt, and how the bill might affect it.

While Democrats veered into full-blown Marxian mode by using terms like "theft" and "looting" to describe the prospect of people being able to keep more of their money, the party once counted on to mind the mint, the GOP, generally failed to ask the first and most important question regarding any spending or tax cut proposal: Can we afford it?

We never expect Democrats to worry about affordability because the idea of government handing out goodies in return for votes constitutes the central pillar of welfare-state liberalism, but Republicans were supposed to be the adults in the room, the misers who hold the line and point out the dangers of deficits and their accumulation over time in the form of national debt.

This isn't to say that tax cuts should always be opposed on fiscal grounds. The essential logic of the "Laffer Curve" -- high tax rates can retard economic growth and thereby actually reduce tax revenue -- is difficult to disagree with. We should all also agree that the best means of reducing deficits is the kind of dynamic, growing economy that a reduced tax burden can bring about.

No, the disturbing part of the Republican tax-cut proposal wasn't the idea of tax cuts per se, or any particular provisions in the bill; it was that the debate over its passage occurred as if a national debt that now ominously exceeds our gross domestic product (GDP) didn't exist.

There are few countries in history that have found themselves in such a fiscal circumstance that have not eventually experienced severe economic decline and impoverishment, if not for those around today, then for those who come later. Although the phrase "for the children" is usually a tipoff for the arrival of rhetorical demagoguery, the national debt is the one area where it actually applies.

The claim is made that our national debt exceeded our GDP during World War II; hence, is not unprecedented or reason to become unduly alarmed.

But there is a substantial difference between spending money to save the world from Hitler and spending it during peacetime on an array of goodies under the moniker of "entitlements," as if anyone is entitled to money they didn't earn and which the government doesn't have in the first place.

Thus, the current debt doesn't flow from the heroics and sacrifices of the greatest generation, but largely from the selfishness and shortsightedness of the ones that followed, of the baby boomers seeking to get theirs while they still can and not caring who gets stuck with the tab as long as it arrives after they're gone.

We therefore encounter in all this the perverse political incentives produced by democratic politics in the age of the welfare state.

More specifically, the deficit is a can that can be kicked down the road for a long time before the day of reckoning arrives, and there is little incentive for tackling it at great political risk in the here and now. It is a disaster that can be pushed onto future generations because they aren't born yet, let alone casting ballots in this year's midterms.

There is, in short, no constituency supporting deficit reduction, and powerful constituencies sure to oppose any cuts (or even cuts in the rate of growth) of the insolvent entitlement programs causing those deficits.

In welfare-state dynamics, politicians get elected by promising a constantly expanding array of free stuff, with scant regard for how it will be paid for; they get re-elected by accusing their opponents of wanting to take it away.

Once the goal of a balanced budget loses its primacy in the minds of an increasingly irresponsible electorate, the political calculus inevitably comes to favor those willing to promise the most stuff, deficits and debt be damned.

A sense of shared national purpose gets replaced by "I got mine, Jack, and you're going to pay for it."

Republicans have come to learn through bitter experience that there is great risk to be found in resisting the "goodies for votes" pandering inherent in welfare-state politics. Nobody likes to be accused of wanting to throw grandma out into the snow (as if Republicans don't also have grandmas).

Democrats have never worried much about deficits, and, based on the tax cut bill, Republicans have now stopped.

In a tactical sense, Democrats only complain about the deficit when Republicans propose cutting taxes, Republicans only complain about it when Democrats propose more spending. But it's all just for show.

We have thus come a long way from Calvin Coolidge and Dwight Eisenhower, from eras when you got elected by promising fiscal responsibility and got re-elected by demonstrating it. The voters cared about balanced budgets then, they don't now.

We've even come a long way since 1992, when Ross Perot won nearly 20 percent of the popular vote by warning of an out-of-control federal debt.

The debt at the time was approximately $4 trillion. It is now $20.5 trillion.

Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.

Editorial on 01/08/2018

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