It has been four  five six days since the mid-term elections, and during that time I have started and abandoned four six seven different posts on that topic. So many different emotions have filled me. I may have needed at least little space to make better sense of them. A fable (kind of) to start off…

Once, there was a group of three Mexicans who set out on a fishing boat to catch sharks.  However, their boat soon experienced adverse winds and mechanical difficulties, and they were lost at sea. The fishermen existing on nothing but raw fish, rain water and the tiny amounts of additional fresh water they could condense and trap. Finally, after nine months and nine days, they were picked up by another fishing vessel, some 5500 miles from where they had started. (True story)
Of course, the Mexican fisherman were malnourished and emaciated. The captain of the ship that rescued them, a Democrat, immediately ordered that a sumptuous feast be brought forth for the starving men. They ate and ate until they had had their fill, gorging themselves on rich roast meats and delectable baked goods and every manner of decadent indulgence.
The First Mate of the rescue boat, himself a Republican, thought ill of the captain’s plan, however. He immediately dashed off a wire to the corporate office, complaining that the feast had ruined the food budget for the vessel’s entire trip. What is more, he strenuously objected to the eating habits of the rescued men. “They ate with reckless abandon,” he reported. “Plate after plate of rich, fatty food. To eat like that only will lead to grave ill health — obesity and heart disease and diabetes and worse. This must be stopped immediately,” he concluded.
The corporate managers summoned the boat back to the harbor, and launched an inquiry into the captain’s actions. They heard evidence from nutritionists and health experts, who confirmed the First Mate’s fears. No one could remain healthy on such a diet as this, they concluded. The captain was reprimanded for his poor judgment, and ordered not to pick up any more lost fisherman for the remainder of his commission. The next day, he apologized to the corporate managers, although many, including the First Mate, felt that he still didn’t really ‘get’ it. They vowed to watch his every move with great vigilance, lest his insidious plan come to pass, and every fisherman on the sea become obese and unhealthy.

And that is where I find myself after the elections. I am not disheartened that the electorate has focused its attention on putting America on a healthy diet. I am disheartened that the electorate seems not to have distinguished between the necessary government actions to turn back a catastrophic recession — a spending “feast” fed to starving fishermen, if you will — and the long-term fiscal realities that we must face.

Somewhere, somehow, successful candidates managed to turn the government’s response to the recent economic crisis upside down. Not only did they portray the government’s response as ineffective, they managed to sell it as the cause of the crisis. That is absurd. Without the Bush/Obama TARP and stimulus interventions, today unemployment would be much higher, and economic growth would be much weaker (perhaps even the economy still contracting), and bankruptcies and mortage defaults would be at even higher levels, and government spending (on safety net programs) would be considerably higher, and government receipts would be much lower (on a smaller economy; all capital losses, no gains), and federal deficits would be much higher, and federal debt would be growing much faster.

But that’s not what seemed to be in people’s minds last Tuesday. Voters seemed to think that runaway spending and an expansionist view of government had created the economic crisis, had created the huge deficits and growing federal debt.  They seemed to be oblivious to the reality that the campaign promises of many of the newly elected — to move immediately toward cutting spending and balancing the budget — likely would push the fragile economy right back into recession, economic contraction, job losses and all the woes that derive from that.

I would love to have an honest debate in this country about the proper size and scope of government, about how we really do address structural over-spending; about how to use tax policy to most effectively promote economic growth. Unfortunately, the mid-term elections were not that debate. They were a debate between the cynical fantasy of the minority party (to cut taxes and cut spending so as to balance the budget, all to end the current recession) and the naive oblivion of the majority party (failing to put forth a necessary agenda to address the country’s long-term structural deficits).

Gahhh.

My simple federal fiscal policy formula:

  1. Accept that these severe short-term federal deficits are an unavoidable consequence of many decades of spending growth, several decades of tax cutting, and the severe recession. It is unwise to sharply rein in these deficits until the economy is stably back on its feet. I define that as when job creation reaches the level needed to start making serious inroads into the unemployment rate — i.e., private sector job creation in the 250,000 per month range.
  2. Courageously attack long term deficits by starting to raise the Social Security/Medicare retirement age (but not for near-term retirees) and by tightening means-testing for Medicaid so that it is restored to its original purpose: a safety net for the indigent, not a middle class entitlement.
  3. In between, restore fiscal sanity by a formula of $2 of spending cuts matched to every $1 of tax increases. Real math, not Washington math.

Is that so hard? Apparently so, because I have not heard a single congressional candidate in this election cycle — not Republicans, not Democrats, not Tea Party folks, not libertarians — not one who espouses anything resembling a coherent fiscal message. This would be the time to do it, too, because for the first time in memory, the electorate seems to be ready to hear that entitlements need to be reformed. I don’t know about tax increases though. Most people still seem in denial about that stone-cold reality.

Michelle Bachmann was quoted in a piece from NPR today. Speaking about the Tea Party, she said, “They believe that we are taxed enough already, that the federal government should not spend more money than it takes in, and that the Congress should act within the constitutional limitations as given to us by the Founding Fathers,” she said. “That is the banner that we believe in.”

Okay, let’s do the math piece by piece:

  1. “[W]e are taxed enough already.” No tax increases — check.
  2. “[T]he federal government should not spend more money than it takes in.” No budget deficits — check.
  3. The federal deficit is now running about $1.4 trillion annually — check.

So if we are not to increase taxes and we are not to incur deficits, and if the deficit is $1.4 trillion, then Michelle Bachmann needs to either (a) Present her plan for cutting $1.4 trillion in federal spending, or (b) Shut her pie hole.

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.

There are only two possibilities, mathematically speaking — either we have a balanced budget, or debt goes up. Can people of all political stripes agree on that?

Here is my question to my friends on the conservative end of the spectrum. Assuming that continuously increasing debt is intolerable, we must balance the budget, right? Okay, how do we accomplish that? There are only two variables in the balanced budget equation: spending and taxation. But you flatly reject taxation as a solution. So that leaves us trying to balance the budget ENTIRELY through spending cuts. With the deficit running at $1.3 trillion annually, we would need spending cuts in that amount to balance the budget. I would be curious just what cuts you have in mind of that magnitude. If you cannot cut $1.3 trillion in spending, and if we cannot raise taxes, then how is it mathematically possible to balance the budget? And if you cannot balance the budget, are you not advocating for for increased federal debt? The math is inescapable.

Here is my question to my friends on the liberal end of the spectrum. This is a breakdown of Obama’s FY2010 budget:

Mandatory spending: $2.184 trillion (+15.6%):
$695 billion (+4.9%) – Social Security
$453 billion (+6.6%) – Medicare
$290 billion (+12.0%) – Medicaid
$0 billion (−100%) – Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP)
$0 billion (−100%) – Financial stabilization efforts
$11 billion (+275%) – Potential disaster costs
$571 billion (−15.2%) – Other mandatory programs
$164 billion (+18.0%) – Interest on National Debt

Discretionary spending: $1.368 trillion (+13.1%):
$663.7 billion (+12.7%) – Department of Defense (including Overseas Contingency Operations)
$78.7 billion (−1.7%) – Department of Health and Human Services
$72.5 billion (+2.8%) – Department of Transportation
$52.5 billion (+10.3%) – Department of Veterans Affairs
$51.7 billion (+40.9%) – Department of State and Other International Programs
$47.5 billion (+18.5%) – Department of Housing and Urban Development
$46.7 billion (+12.8%) – Department of Education
$42.7 billion (+1.2%) – Department of Homeland Security
$26.3 billion (−0.4%) – Department of Energy
$26.0 billion (+8.8%) – Department of Agriculture
$23.9 billion (−6.3%) – Department of Justice
$18.7 billion (+5.1%) – National Aeronautics and Space Administration
$13.8 billion (+48.4%) – Department of Commerce
$13.3 billion (+4.7%) – Department of Labor
$13.3 billion (+4.7%) – Department of the Treasury
$12.0 billion (+6.2%) – Department of the Interior
$10.5 billion (+34.6%) – Environmental Protection Agency
$9.7 billion (+10.2%) – Social Security Administration
$7.0 billion (+1.4%) – National Science Foundation
$5.1 billion (−3.8%) – Corps of Engineers
$5.0 billion (+100%) – National Infrastructure Bank
$1.1 billion (+22.2%) – Corporation for National and Community Service
$0.7 billion (0.0%) – Small Business Administration
$0.6 billion (−14.3%) – General Services Administration
$19.8 billion (+3.7%) – Other Agencies
$105 billion – Other

Why must we have a 13.1% increase in discretionary spending? Isn’t that the height of irresponsibility in these times? The economy is booming again. The stock market is up by 60% in the past year. The massive job losses  of 2007-08 have ended, and all signs point to job creation around the corner as the economy continues to expand. Surely we can have a budget that acknowledges the economic drag that $1.3 trillion annual deficits, and $13 trillion of cumulative federal debt, have.

No matter how I look at things, I come back to the same conclusion. Ideologues are America’s greatest enemy.

Do you want to know why government keeps growing and growing and growing? Do you want to stop it?

I am going to whisper the secret answer to you. But you may not like it. The scope of government has been expanding rapidly since the 1980s because no one has to pay the cost. The culture of debt means that we borrow the funds needed to add the Americans with Disabilities Act, and No Child Left Behind, and Medicare Part D, and wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan and Iraq, and so on and on. Why not do all these things? What senior wouldn’t appreciate prescription drug coverage, or what community wouldn’t appreciate federal funds for its schools?

And there is no constituency to oppose these things, or to moderate them, because there is no levy on taxpayers. We just borrow the money.

So, here comes the painful conclusion. You want to control federal spending? You want to limit the scope of government? You want to, as the Tea Party folks like to say, ‘return government to its constitutional boundaries’? Simple answer: Demand taxation. Demand an end to deficits and debt accumulation. It is no different than managing your finances at home. If you discipline yourself to pay cash for everything, and cut up the credit card, your finances will be fine. Demanding taxation to fund our government is the same thing. Sure it will be painful for twenty years. But then we’ll be fine.

You think this is nuts? Fine. Just remember this post when federal debt hits $15 trillion… $20 trillion… $30 trillion……….