According to Republicans, the U.S. is on the verge of financial collapse and big government is the cause. Their most recent theatrical, political prop has been the debt counter, which is currently running somewhere between 16 and 17 trillion. For those ignorant of economic policy and the history of the relationship between federal tax revenues and expenses, it looks like a big number, and if one party says it’s a force to be reckoned with, and reacts thusly, by God, it probably is and the insouciance of the opposing party and Paul Krugman is as good as treason.
Don’t get me wrong, the problem is not entirely trumped up. U.S. debt is at an all time high, but the problem has less to do with the expansion of government services and entitlements and more to do with our unwillingness to pay for them.
The U.S., in the last 30 years has typically run a deficit and federal expenses, as a percentage of GDP haven’t changed very much and are, in fact, climbing back down to the rate they were during the Reagan and H.W. Bush years–presidents not known for growing government or being friendly to entitlement spending. Although ‘Mr. Morning in America’ is the progenitor of politicians like Paul Ryan, budget proposals that came out of the Reagan administration were much closer to Obama’s than Ryan’s.
What has changed is the amount of tax revenues collected as a percentage of GDP. This is largely due to the remnant policies of the Bush administration which kept taxes low on Americans at all levels, but because the GOP’s mantra–with Norquist as the drum leader, is “No New Taxes” government is spending more than it earns. Obama is not above reproach here either. He has based spending initiatives, the stimulus packages (which were, in part, tax cuts) on the assumption that in the future Republicans will agree to increased revenues when growth, or at least the prevention of double dips, follows each stimulus. He has repeatedly been rebuffed however, and tax revenues have remained at 30 year lows, while expenditures have grown.
Unlike Reagan, today’s conservatives, rather than meet modestly higher spending with modestly higher taxes to close the budget gap at a time when tax rates are as low as they have been in 60 years, they have opted to lower taxes more so, and accordingly reduce the cost of government–that is excluding defense.
The problem with this is that, and perhaps I’m being unfair to 47% of the votership, but I don’t think these truths are penetrating. Most Republicans I come into contact with think Obama is a high-taxing, Spend-o-crat who is (at best) an unwitting Socialist and (at worst) a cunning, social-reforming Antichrist.
I excuse the ignorance of both conservatives and liberals who have little time for or interest in the news. People catch the highlights, develop a shorthand for whom to trust. I get it. What is inexcusable, are those who are supposedly engaged in the debate who consider political analysis devoid of figures informative, rather than just reinforcing–comfort TV with a higher pulse rate.
The plain-as-day numbers are, on average Reagan’s tax revenues were 18.2% of GDP, while his expenses were 22.4% of GDP. Obama’s average tax revenues are 15.3%, while his expenses are 24.0%. This is neither taxing nor spending high, and a country cannot do both of those things at the same time without accruing debt. The problem is that each party is only getting half of what they want and together, they are at odds with the goal of deficit reduction.
I found in watching the Krugman-Scarborough showdown that I lie somewhere in the middle of the two. I think that deficit reduction should come second to job creation, which could be spurred not only through smart savings through cuts and efficiencies but through significant infrastructure investment. Borrowing rates are low, and infrastructure has high returns. Even without added revenues, we should be doing this.
I also think we should brace ourselves for the largest generation of entitlement recipients and healthcare costs that have yet to stall. Some economists think our debt-to-GDP ratio will top out, as Japan’s did. Krugman views it as a problem, but a far-off one, and while I think that assessment is accurate, it is a rosy view, especially considering that we are in and expected to move deeper in uncharted budgetary territory.
Ezra Klein said something very interesting: that if we were living a Romney/Ryan administration, it is very unlikely that a budget proposal like the one Ryan released would’ve been, nor would the Republican party embrace it. That is because when polling is done, people want the status quo. In other words, people want low taxes, their services intact, and entitlements untouched. The Senate budget proposal released yesterday generally indulges that impulse, and although my hunch is that it was weak to make Obama’s soon-to come proposal appear bold and bipartisan, it helps in validating voters who think Ryan’s radical proposal is all the more called-for.
Ryan’s plan includes measures which are not only unrealistic, but politically unviable in either party, and serve only to produce an obdurate voting class and prolong an untenable budgetary predicament. The success of that strategy depends upon how opaque conservative politicians can keep the connection between the deficit and low-revenues to their constituents. The more conservatives learn that they are the unwitting socialists, the sooner we can pay for the government most of us want.
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