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Starving the Budget

With the fiscal cliff looming, Republicans are indicating some flexibility on taxes, at least for the higher income brackets. Naturally, this is generating some opposition:

To start with, Kristol misunderstands the opponents of the tax increases on the rich, whose main goal is not to ensure that the rich get to keep more of their money. Their main goal is to prevent the federal government from obtaining a new source of revenue. Why might that be?

Tax increases can be immediate, but spending cuts must be spread over many years. That provides politicians with plenty of opportunities for change their minds on spending (i.e.: vote for me and I will increase funding for your program). Contemporary Western Europe provides a perfect example of this phenomenon. In the wake of the 2008 crisis, Western European countries have introduced substantial tax increases that, in my humble opinion, are the primary reason for Europe’s double-dip recession.

There is a reasonable point in this, which is that promised spending cuts often don’t happen. But that’s not a fundamental law of the universe. After the tax hikes of the late 80′s and early 90′s, we did get spending restraint. And we got it from the same people who control the purse strings right now … a Republican House of Representatives. If the GOP wants spending cuts to happen, they can make those spending cuts happen, as they did in the 90′s.

Moreover, the Grand Bargain that has to happen is on entitlement spending with Medicare and Social Security. That will involve statutory changes, not budget changes and those are extremely hard to undo. If Congress raises the retirement age or changes the COLA formula or institutes Medicare vouchers, that will be almost impossible to undo (as we’re now seeing with Obamacare).

To be frank, the argument that we should not give the government new revenue cross me as a rehash of one the most fiscally destructive ideas in the last thirty years: the so-called “Starve the Beast” theory.

Starve the Beast was the theory that if we cut taxes, it would force the government to cut spending because the resulting deficit would be unsustainable (this was before people decided that the Laffer Curve was, in fact, the Laffer Line and that all tax cuts paid for themselves). Starve the Beast sounded tempting, especially to faux conservatives who were big on tax cuts and not so big on cutting spending. But it ran aground on several rocks:

First, spending cuts don’t just fall from the sky. You have to actually cut spending at some point. And the people who had to cut spending were the same people trying to force themselves to cut spending. It was like trying to lose weight by eating a box of doughnuts hoping that will force you to go the gym.

Second, the lesson Congress learned from Starve the Beast wasn’t that they couldn’t tolerate big deficits. The lesson they learned was that they could. As a result, we’re now enjoying our fourth straight year of trillion dollar deficits.

Third, and this is a point I keep harping on, Starve the Beast made spending painless for the taxpayer. This was especially true in the Bush years when we started two wars and put in a prescription drug program while removing millions from the tax rolls. The impression given to the taxpayers was that wars and drug programs were free, or at least were paid for by somebody else (somebody rich). It has continued in the Obama years, with spending and taxes being manipulated so that Obamacare appears to decrease the deficit when it, in fact, does not and tax hikes only acceptable if they hit the dreaded rich.

I keep saying this and I am going to keep saying it: the most important aspect of any government budget is that spending should hurt. Spending should hurt either in cutting other services or in raising taxes. If you aren’t doing either of those things, you are giving people government on the cheap. And they will have no incentive, none whatsover, to support spending cuts.

Would you turn down services that are discounted 40-100%?

One of the problems we face in balancing the budget is that spending cuts are popular in general and unpopular in detail. When you ask people what spending they support cutting, the only thing that even gets 50% is foreign aide. But a big reason for that is that, for most Americans, government spending doesn’t hurt them. They can support all these wonderful things confident that the money for it will come out of somebody else’s pocket.

And that leads in to my real point: if we’re going to raise taxes to close the budget deficit, we have to raise them on everyone, not just the evil rich. The obsession the Democrats have with only raising taxes on the rich is a product of class warfare, not fiscal sanity. To balance the budget with taxes — hell, to balance them with any sensible mix of taxes and spending cuts — is going to mean raising taxes on everyone. Alex’s post made this point very well. Look at the breakdown of where the fiscal cliff taxes are coming from: over 80% are from people who are not rich.

If we just raises taxes on the rich that will, once again, give the American people the impression that the budget deficit is something other richer people will cover. It will make it almost impossible to cut spending in the future because, really, how is all that spending hurting 98% of the voters? But if we raise taxes now, raise them on everyone, then the popular support for spending restraint will come roaring back.

That’s not just ivory tower theorizing. We have a historical precedent. From the early 80′s to the early 90′s, Reagan, Bush and Clinton raised taxes eight times. The resultant backlash brought the Republicans into power in 1994 on a platform of fiscal discipline. And they delivered. And as much as the press tried to whine and cry and tell sob stories about how the budget cuts were destroying our country, the Republicans (and Clinton) got re-elected. Because people didn’t want more spending and they saw that, in many cases, the country was better off without it.

The only way to make spending cuts happen and make them stick is to make sure the American public feel it when we spend too much. And they’re not going to feel it because we eliminated a tax break on corporate jets.

There’s another reason to stop kicking the can down the road. Bruce Bartlett:

At the time the tax cuts were enacted, I recall arguing with my longtime friend Grover Norquist that temporary tax cuts were a really bad idea. Supply-side theory has always held that permanent tax changes are vastly more powerful than temporary changes, I told him. He didn’t disagree, but said the Bush tax cuts were de facto permanent because Democrats would never have the guts to permit them to expire; they would be renewed forever. People and businesses will know that, Mr. Norquist said.

That was a foolish position for political and economic reasons. People and businesses don’t make the sorts of changes in their behavior that would give the economy a supply-side boost unless they have confidence that today’s tax regime will be in place when the payoff from increased work, saving or investment is realized.

You know all that stuff we’ve been saying about regulatory uncertainty and how businesses are afraid to invest because they don’t know what the future will bring? Well, these temporary tax cuts, renewed every couple of years, are part of that. Bartlett specifically gets into the R&D tax credit and how its temporary status has created wonderful lobbying opportunities but little economic benefit. He argues that higher but more certain taxes would be better for our economy than lower but more uncertain taxes. And given that Bartlett basically invented supply-side economics, I’m inclined to agree with him.

Obviously, the best scenario would be to burn the entire tax code down and rebuild it, a la Simpson-Bowles. But that would take months, if it happens at all. If you want to create certainty, putting together a long-term budget deal with higher taxes is the way to go. And then, if we do get a tax overhaul, that will be an unexpected shot in the economy’s arm.

Yeah, I know. This is the dreaded compromise. But the idea that we’re going to cut spending 40% is ridiculous, not just in terms of the politics of the possible but in real terms. Cutting spending 40% means we can pay for Medicare, Social Security, the military and veterans. Everything else — from Medicaid for poor seniors to law enforcement to disaster relief would go. Oh, and every state would suddenly find a 30-50% hole blown in their budget.

Moreover, I’ve been thinking of something Ed Morrissey said the other day, in the context of a compromise on immigration:

The insistence on demanding nothing but the hard-line approach creates big problems for the nation and the GOP itself. First, the issue of border security has been left in limbo for more than 11 years after 9/11, and more than seven years after the 9/11 Commission rightly demanded better security on both borders, and the broken visa program that offers no follow-up on expired entries. If we continue to punt rather than compromise, we will be left waiting for at least four more years to get any kind of solution.

In two years, there will be another election. In four years, we will have a new President. If the Republicans have exercised some serious budget restraint by then and our deficit is falling, then we can reopen the issue of returning to Bush tax rates. Until then, however, we have to deal with the situation we have in front of us. And the situation we have is a big deficit that can not be closed by spending cuts alone and Democratic control of the White House and the Senate.

Keep in mind something else: taxes are already programmed to go up. The price of doing nothing is a gigantic half-trillion dollar tax increase on January 1. If we insist on taxes not going up, the result will inevitably be that they will.

Look, I hate taxation. I’m one of those who will get hit pretty hard if we return to Clinton-era rates or something approaching them. But there is something I hate more than taxes and that is debt. And I don’t see any practical way, outside of Fever Swamp La-la Land, to balance the budget without raising taxes.

Yes, the GOP needs to drive a hard bargain. Tom Coburn has identified tens of billions in wasteful defense spending that we should cut. Agriculture subsidies and ethanol subsidies should be on the table. The Ex-Im Bank should have been killed last year. Hell, maybe we could even taken Obama up on his “Department of Business” idea if it means we kill off Commerce, SBA, Ex-Im and some other budget functions. The hardest bargain, of course, has to be driven on entitlements.

But we can not stick to anti-tax orthodoxy. It’s not realistic. It’s not responsible. And, in my opinion, it’s not conservative.

Let me elaborate on that last point: low taxes are not a conservative value; small government is. Low taxes do not create small government, they are the result of keeping government small. Raise taxes to cover the bloated government we have now, hack at it like hell for four years and then we can talk about cutting taxes back.

Update: If you think you balance the budget without raising taxes, there are various budget simulators that can get you there.

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  1. Hal_10000 says:

    Uh-oh. Bono says we can’t go over the fiscal cliff. Now I’m convinced.

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  1. The Norqmonster » Right Thinking says:

    [...] for me to defend Norquist, since I disagree with him. I’ve said that taxes probably need to go up if and only if we get statutory changes to Medicare and Social Security in the bargain. And I agree [...]

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