I have been saying for years that the orthodoxy of tax cutting that originated back in the Reagan administration is as responsible for today’s vast deficits and federal debt as over-spending. After all, say what we will about FDR and the New Deal, or Johnson and the New Society — at least through the 1970s we pretty much paid for the government we demanded. Jimmy Carter left office with less than $1 trillion in federal debt. Since then, though, it has exploded, driven by both steadily rising spending and by tax cutting measures. Debt doubled under Reagan, and nearly did so again under Bush 43. By the time we get to Obama, debt is piling up at the rate of more than $1 trillion a year.

As a result, I have been highly critical of Tea Party and other right-wing types who espouse a “cut spending, cut taxes” view of fiscal policy. I believe that deficits and the resulting debt are the great threat to our future. Tax cuts in this environment are not merely illogical, they are irresponsible. If your family is deeply in debt, you work to cut spending and raise your income. You don’t cut spending and ask your boss to cut your pay. We cannot in good conscience cut today’s taxes, which raises the deficits and puts an even greater burden on future generations.

Now, along comes a front page piece in USA Today, of all places. The headline reads “Tax bills in 2009 at lowest level since 1950“. On average, 9.2% of our personal income is paid in taxes at all levels of government. Our taxes are at their lowest level in 60 years. Let’s have that sink in: lowest in 60 years. What could possibly be the argument for cutting taxes even further than a 60-year low when we are saddling our children and children’s children with more than $1 trillion in debt by the year?

Do you know what is “conservative”? Conservative is paying for what you buy, and not acting like a god-damned socialist and expecting someone else to pay for it instead. Spending cuts and tax increases, please.

Does this healthcare bill usher in an era of misery and misfortune for America? That’s what one would believe listening to some of the opposition to the bill. More taxes on the wealthy will kill jobs. More federal spending will drag the economy underwater. Expansion of government will tip us over the cliff of socialism.

There is what I would call “directional validity” to those concerns. This healthcare bill does move us in the direction of more taxes, more federal spending and more government control over the financing of healthcare. What we must consider, though, is not just the direction of those changes, but their magnitude. Living here in Chicago, if I drive one mile west, I am heading in the direction of driving off the cliff into the Pacific Ocean — but taking magnitude into account, I need not be concerned.

One means to gauge whether the magnitude of the tax increase component is to put it into historical context. “For most of the last three decades, tax rates for the wealthy have been falling, while their pretax pay has been rising rapidly. Real incomes at the 99.99th percentile have jumped more than 300 percent since 1980. At the 99th percentile — about $300,000 today — real pay has roughly doubled.” By contrast, “since 1980, median real household income has risen less than 15%.” [See here.]

In other words, we already have been where we are going. And it wasn’t disasterous; in fact, it was prosperous. This act certainly is a form of wealth redistribution. So too is the status quo, a steady trickle in the opposite direction. The question isn’t whether this act redistributes wealth. The question is whether it does so to such a degree as to be dangerous to our economic and social stability. Seems to me that it will roll back the tide to where we were in, what, 2000? 1995? 1990? Those were boom times. We prospered then. Why should returning to that point of wealth equilibrium make prosperity impossible now?

Maybe this isn’t a plunge into the deepest ocean of socialism. Maybe it is a tweak.