Like living with a six-year-old

by Ted on June 30, 2004

PETER: I, uh, I don’t like my job. I don’t think I’m gonna go anymore.
JOANNA: You’re just not gonna go?
PETER: Yeah.
JOANNA: Won’t you get fired?
PETER: I don’t know. But I really don’t like it so I’m not gonna go…
JOANNA: So what are you going to do about money and bills?
PETER: Y’know, I never really liked paying bills? I don’t think I’ll do that either.

Source: Republican Party Platform

How much room for compromise is there with the legions who lose their minds when they hear this:

Many of you are well enough off that … the tax cuts may have helped you,” Sen. Clinton said. “We’re saying that for America to get back on track, we’re probably going to cut that short and not give it to you. We’re going to take things away from you on behalf of the common good.”

For this, she’s called a Marxist. Excuse me, but isn’t “taking things away from you on behalf of the common good” an unflowery but straightforward description of taxation? I don’t see why this description should be remotely controversial. I don’t like paying taxes either, but what, exactly, is the other option? Is anarcho-libertarianism on the ballot?

There are more reasonable people who acknowledge that taxes aren’t going away. They just want to protect the Bush tax cut from any proposed rollbacks. They’d rather close the deficit with spending cuts. And which party, exactly, do they believe is going to enact these spending cuts? From Slate:

It’s all the more extraordinary that when Bush got asked about his spending habit on Meet the Press, this was his answer:

If you look at the appropriations bills that were passed under my watch, in the last year of President Clinton, discretionary spending was up 15 percent, and ours have steadily declined.

That isn’t even close to being true. Under Bush, overall discretionary spending (i.e., with defense spending included) has increased every single year. It’s now 31 percent higher than it was when Bush arrived.

But perhaps Bush meant to say, “domestic discretionary spending.” Well, that, too, has increased every single year of Bush’s presidency, and, as previously noted, is now 25 percent higher than it was when Bush arrived.

It seems almost gratuitous to add that in the last year of President Clinton’s term, discretionary spending was up not 15 percent, but 3 percent, and that domestic discretionary spending was up not 15 percent, but 5 percent.

The Bush tax cuts are the largest cause of an unsustainable structural budget deficit. Even Bruce Bartlett in the National Review acknowledges that some tax increases will be necessary. When I hear someone argue against the repeal of any of Bush’s tax cuts, they’ve basically got to use one of the following rationales:

(a) I believe that large, structural, long-term deficits don’t matter.

(b) I believe that we are on the verge of the greatest period of economic growth in American history.

(c) The Republican party, whom I trust more than the Democrats to reduce spending, has actually grossly expanded domestic spending while enjoying total control of the federal government. Nonetheless, I believe that my small-government ideals are about to become a reality.

(d) I believe that the United States will soon become a Saudi-level oil exporter, and the oil revenues will cover the hundreds of billions of dollars worth of programs that we’re not willing to pay for in taxes.

(e) The government should pay for goods and services in wishes and fairy dust.

Is there an (f)? Comments are open.

Andrew Sullivan, who wrote such a childish snit that he issued a rare semi-apology the next day, says:

I’d cut spending before I touched any tax increases. Why cannot Hillary end agricultural subsidies, abolish corporate tax shelters, or means-test Social Security and Medicare? That would be for the common good. But it’s easier to raise taxes.

As a bad liberal, I would agree with any of those policy prescriptions, including the means-testing of benefits. (I doubt that they would come close to closing the deficit, but that’s another story). Still, it takes a special kind of pundit to castigate Hillary for her failure to single-handedly enact them.

Sully, your team has the ball. They don’t share your goals. They haven’t pursued your initiatives. Quite the contrary; they’ve dramatically increased agricultural subsidies, fought to protect corporate tax shelters, and added a massive drug benefit for Medicare.

I don’t mean to promote Democrats as the small-government party. I think that they would have done a much better job with tax shelters, and I think that their version of the drug benefit would have done a more rational job of controlling costs. On the other hand, they weren’t exactly laying down in the street to stop the farm bill, and they would probably have proposed a more generous drug benefit if they had been in power. History is showing pretty clearly that the only method of slowing the growth of government is not Republicanism, but gridlock. (Vote Kerry.)

In the end, we’ve basically got one party which generally accepts that we need to collect enough taxes to pay for the government that actually exists. And, we’ve got another party only seems willing to collect enough taxes to pay for the government that it wishes existed, but isn’t willing to fight for. Judging from the comments that I’m reading on other blogs (and the comments that I anticipate here), a lot of voters are much more concerned with Hillary’s choice of pronouns and the deconstruction of the phrase “common good” than they are with paying our damn bills. It’s no way to run a country.



Jack 06.30.04 at 6:54 pm

Means testing benefits is superficially attractive and sometimes necessary but is usually expensive to administer, tends to create perverse incentives and very high effective marginal tax rates, can mean that those who pay for the benefit will not be able to receive it thus alienating them from the programme, and mostly ends up as fast one on the middle class — not much difference for the very rich, good for the very poor but pretty useless for the majority in between.

In the UK means testing state pension benefits mean that many people have tax disincentives to save and if the current structure is to be maintained for any significant length of time will apply to more than half of the UK population.


Shai 06.30.04 at 7:05 pm

Slandering Office Space? Heresy.


JRoth 06.30.04 at 7:14 pm

And no, doing every one of the things Andrew cites would still not close the defecit. Part of the problem with the whole debate is that we poor savannah-striders are so very bad at dealing with Very Large Numbers. We can’t help but look at a billion dollars worth of farm subsidies and say, well surely cutting this would help. But that billion is a penny out of a fifty dollar budget. No one who needed ten bucks would start out looking under the cushions for pennies – they’d take a look at the two bucks they were about to spend on a latte (or whatever – didn’t mean that metaphor to extend quite so far…).


dmm 06.30.04 at 7:40 pm

I think that (f) is

(f) I believe that taxes should be increased on income from work, and left alone or decreased on income from investment.


Matt Weiner 06.30.04 at 8:02 pm

JRoth is (I trust) right–the big spending-side item is dealing with the expected future growth of Medicare (NOT Social Security). But agricultural subsidies are bad for other reasons. Not that I think anyone was denying that, I just wanted to put that forward. Carry on.


SomeCallMeTim 06.30.04 at 8:14 pm

Unbelievable. You make the Republican Party the hero of Office Space? Why not just come out for Bush?


neil 06.30.04 at 8:27 pm

Since the whole premise of Office Space is that the ‘hero’ is rendered incapable of feeling any responsibility, I shouldn’t think it’s a very offensive comparison.


Xavier 06.30.04 at 8:54 pm

We recognize that all taxes are “tak[ing] things away…on behalf of the common good,” but we would prefer that our leaders at least be somewhat ashamed of that. In that quote, Hillary sounds a little too gleeful about massive taxing and spending.


harry 06.30.04 at 8:56 pm

Just wanted to second what Jack said. Means-testing isn’t always bad, but it *almost* always is, for the reasons he gives. The left should stand for direct, universal, and generous benefits, even when they appear, superficially, unfair.

Oh yes, and matt weiner and jroth are right in everything they said too. Just felt like doing some affirming.


Nicholas Weininger 06.30.04 at 8:57 pm

Now I’m an anarcho-libertarian myself, and I’d love it if the people condemning Hillary would come over to my camp. :-) But I don’t think one need be an anarchist to take umbrage at her tone. If you believe that

1. taxes are a hateful, evil necessity, though a necessity nevertheless

2. people who raise taxes enthusiastically and unashamedly, not just reluctantly, tend to be socialists or at least socialist-sympathizers

3. therefore, a decent person proposing to raise taxes should do so only with the sincerest reluctance and only accompanied by a clear explanation of why the increase is a dire necessity

then it’s easy to see where the objection is.

Put another way: if she had said

“I don’t like tax increases any more than anyone else, but there is no other politically feasible way to reduce our huge deficits, and if we don’t reduce those deficits now we’re going to have terrible problems down the line.”

and said it as if she actually meant it, almost no one would have reacted nearly as badly– even though the substance would have been pretty much the same.

But her remarks gave no indication that she had any real compunction at all about the idea of raising taxes. And that screams “social engineer” to people, especially coming from the mouth of a longtime proponent of various costly schemes for, well, social engineering.


Chip Unicorn 06.30.04 at 9:05 pm

Of course there’s an (f):

(f) I don’t care what happens in the future. Just give me money, now!


Barry 06.30.04 at 9:09 pm

It’s interesting to hear people criticizing Hillary’s tone, or alleged eagerness, or inability to enact major government reforms.

It’s ridiculous when those people can’t face up to GOP responsibility.


johnnyboy 06.30.04 at 9:21 pm

another (f):

Print more money! Hyper-inflation causes national emergency, and thus ends the republic. Life is so much easier when you’re a dictator, as Bush has already told us.


Hogan 06.30.04 at 10:54 pm

If you’re offended by the Office Space heresy, can you work with The Simpsons?

“They want the bear patrol but they won’t pay taxes for it.”

And is the libertarian position that taxation is theft carried out at the point of a gun, but it’s OK, as long as we only do it a little bit? Not too much?


Giles 06.30.04 at 11:02 pm

f) is inflation – as long as nominal gdp is growing fast enough the debt doesnt grow.

Its unfrotunate however that inflation doesnt seem to be on the election agenda – yet.


jrv 06.30.04 at 11:04 pm

The spiraling US debt is absolutely fantastic. Yes, I’m saying it. And no, you don’t necessarily have to pay it. Do you know what happens to taxes during periods of hyperinflation?
You don’t have to pay! If I pay in April at last January’s rate, I get off great! And technology will provide us an attractive solution to the US dollar in the future. That’s right, e-gold,
on your cell phone. I will refuse to be contracted in any other denomination aside from gold. No worries about carrying hundreds of pounds of sucres or reales or marks.

Simple government destruction. So, there’s my common good. The debt is great, keep those tax cuts coming! And….bye, bye Greenspan!


joe 06.30.04 at 11:08 pm

Nicholas – you’re an “anarcho-libertarian”, ok, but the original comment as quoted was specifically directed toward the beneficiaries of the Bush tax cuts, who are all personally wealthy in large part as a result of hidden corporate subsidies which violate your basic beliefs about government. You have no consistent grounds for objecting to *that* money being taken away from *those* people.


Brett 06.30.04 at 11:10 pm

Then there’s the other (f), which was the start of a famous and oft-used phrase used by our lovely vice-President this week. Combine with an unwillingness to admit error and an unwavering focus on electoral victory, and I think that (f)@%! is probably the winner here.

Great post, btw.


Jack 06.30.04 at 11:22 pm

Almost all the shocked and horrified take the content completely out of context too. Senator Clinton was talking to a very wealthy group of people, she was talking about a very specific group of things, she pointed out what was prompting this action and she gave an unobjectionable justification.

At first I was at a loss as how to explain the extremity of the reaction to Senator Clinton’s unsuspecting political incorrectness. Now my best guess is that Republicans must be very scared of the following:

i) Popular use of the phrase “common good”

ii) Democrats being able to talk about raising taxes without disaster

iii) The criticism of the responsibility of the current administration under the current circumstances arising from a discussion of the issues actually raised.

iv) The importance of exactly who is “you” in Sen. Clinton’s speech and what it says about the true nature of the tax cuts, especially their distribution

Whether this is a calculated diversion or just a panic reaction inspired by the potential potency of the message I don’t know.

In any event all the criticisms depend upon some reductio ad absurdum of her comments and unspecified and vague parallels with statements that are bad in some equally unspecified way. None tackles the issue at hand and in so far as the criticisms become the focus of discussion of Senator Clinton’s speech they may have been succesful. Taken in their own terms however they are very uconvincing and if that amount of point stretching is allowed as a reasonable interpretation politicians will have to keep their mouths shut.


fyreflye 07.01.04 at 1:15 am

The reason for the undue attention given to Senator Clinton’s remarks is that a small but vocal minority in the US passionately hates her guts.


mc 07.01.04 at 9:05 am

You’d think by now everyone should be outraged at anyone promising to _cut_ taxes, not the other way round.


Thomas Dent 07.01.04 at 10:21 am

Are benefits taxed in the US? While means-testing is probably not a good idea, I believe that benefit income should be taxed like any other income.

Or, simply adopt the guaranteed minimum income/’negative income tax’ of Milton Friedman, a liberal idea if ever I saw one.


Micha Ghertner 07.01.04 at 11:21 am

And is the libertarian position that taxation is theft carried out at the point of a gun, but it’s OK, as long as we only do it a little bit? Not too much?

Less theft is better than more theft.


Steve 07.01.04 at 2:54 pm

Or, simply adopt the guaranteed minimum income/’negative income tax’ of Milton Friedman, a liberal idea if ever I saw one.

Hey, I like the idea if it is coupled with a complete and total removal of all other subsidies, transfers, and so forth. I we took what the government takes in (less defense spending) we could send out some pretty decent sized checks to people. Further, we could cut out alot of the bureaucracy that costs so much money and often does very little that is productive.

I’d also want it put in the Constitution or setup so that a super-majority is needed to change things such as upping the dollar amounts people get. And set it up so that it pays to work as well.

Unfortunately, it will never ever fly because as soon as a politician presents it, he’ll get attacked for it.


Tuttle 07.01.04 at 7:22 pm

Less theft is better than more theft.

Taxation isn’t theft, it’s the result of private property and the need for a social system that protects it. Property is theft.

/Just thought a little left anarchism should be injected here.


mccoll 07.01.04 at 7:53 pm

There is an amazing disconnect in many people’s minds between the things they want from government (e.g., safety, working utility grids) and what it takes to pay for those things. As a patriotic American, I pay my taxes, on time and in full.


john casey 07.02.04 at 3:24 am

thomas dent:

Both social security benefits and unemployment benefits are taxed in the US, if the recipient’s income is high enough. (I believe 85% of SS is taxed, not 100%)


Keith 07.02.04 at 3:16 pm

f) Who needs medicare, public education, public transportation, or welfare anyway? I always hated th epoor and every disease can be cured if you just pray really, really hard.

And yes, Anarcho-libritarianism is on the ballot. It’s in the fine print on every Bush-Cheney ’04 bumper sticker.

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