Saturday, February 13, 2010


In the last few weeks, Barack Obama has generated a white hot reaction from the progressive community for his embrace of a domestic spending freeze beginning in 2011. All over the U.S., progressives expressed their condemnation. According to the progressive mantra, the President is selling us out. He is making a lame attempt to triangulate – to appeal to the right-wingers whose support is seen as crucial to the adoption of ANY part of his legislative agenda.

Let me say for the record that I am not happy with the announcement of the domestic spending freeze. But my criticism doesn’t stem from a disdain for fiscal conservatism. In fact, I view fiscal conservatism to be a highly progressive cause, one that should be embraced at all times … unless the country is facing a severe economic or military crisis. My concern with Barack’s proposal is that it treats domestic spending as the most expendable basis of the national debt. I would obviously prefer that Barack impose a similar freeze on military spending, or that he increase taxes on the one group of Americans who sacrifice the least during times of need. Yet the one thing that bothers me more than the approach Barack is taking is the one most progressives would have him take: spend, spend, spend and let the deficit be damned! Not only is this the definition of irresponsibility, but it violates the fundamental principle of modern liberalism: don’t allow market mechanisms to destroy the rights of those who the market ignores.

Progressives note that the economic marketplace ignores the needs of the environment. As a result, we are environmentalists. Progressives also note that the marketplace ignores the needs of the underclass. As a result, we support economic equity and all sorts of poverty programs. Progressives note that the economic and political marketplace ignores the equal rights of women and minorities. As a result, we support affirmative action (to differing degrees) and the basic tenets of feminism. Progressives note that animals have no say in the marketplace. As a result, we tend to support animal rights … and some of us (present company included) are even vegan.

But what about the rights of our children and grandchildren? The political and economic marketplace would appear to ignore them as well, don’t you think? They can’t vote, and they don’t buy goods and services. Accordingly, they make no direct demands on the powers-that-be. Sure, there are some adults who speak out on behalf of future generations, but their advocacy comes across as all too abstract and nebulous. To say that the future generations have their spokespeople is like envisioning the civil rights movement without African-American participation – talk about a movement lacking in poetry and passion.

Fiscal conservatism, otherwise known as “pay as you go,” is a cause that embraces millions if not billions of interested parties who are unable to speak for themselves. As such, it ought to be viewed with the same sanctity as the other progressive causes. So why isn’t it?

Perhaps the word “conservative” in the name of this cause is a turn off to progressives. Or more to the point, it’s a turn-ON to many on the right. But the problem is that while right-wing politicians love to demagogue about their fiscal conservatism, how many of you have actually seen a conservative politician embrace this approach? Reagan? Hardly. The man built up big deficits, supposedly in order to defeat the Soviet Union. W? Are you kidding? He had his own wars to wage, and exercised about as much discipline with the budget as he formerly exercised with alcohol. How about W’s dad? Didn’t he famously go back on his pledge to implement “no new taxes”? Sure, but look how that well that worked for him among conservatives. H.W. Bush was crucified for increasing taxes – and all he was trying to do was come closer to “pay as you go.”

Whenever there is a Democrat in the White House, Republicans fall all over themselves in trumpeting the need for fiscal “restraint.” But all that means is that they would like to restrain the implementation of progressive initiatives. To a staunch conservative, if you let Democratic Presidents spend to their hearts’ content, you’ll get (a) handouts to the poor, which only make them lazier and less productive; (b) new government bureaucracies run by arrogant, paternalistic nannies who think they know what’s best for the American public about literally everything, and (c) pork projects intended disproportionately to reward legislators from Blue States and Districts.
When you think about it that way, any sane person would favor fiscal restraint.

Watch what happens, however, within a nanosecond of the moment a Republican is elected to the White House. Suddenly, the commitment to a balanced budget flies out the window. And the reason is simple: once they realize that deficit spending need not entail handouts to the poor, the creation of new paternalistic bureaucracies, or pork payments to liberal legislators, Republicans come to recognize that they can enjoy the benefits of a don’t-tax-but-do-spend policy. Do you want to spend whatever it takes to get the best military money can buy? Why the hell not! Do you want to reduce taxes and unleash the wealth that will generate a full-employment economy? Who wouldn’t! Do you want to slash domestic spending in those areas that are not necessary, like subsidies for rich farmers? Well … in theory yes … but in practice, that will just piss people off, generate a lot of controversy that we don’t need, and threaten our entire agenda. So let’s just keep cutting taxes and increasing spending on our favorite causes, and that way we’ll at least remain politically popular. Who’s going to mind other than people who haven’t been born yet?

And so it goes. The Republicans are no more fiscally conservative than the Democrats. In fact, as I’ve suggested, they are likely to be LESS conservative, because Democrats are at least duty bound by their own principles to care for those neglected by the marketplace.

Unfortunately, the Democrats’ sense of duty to future generations only goes so far. So now we are being bombarded by progressive voices who are calling for more and more spending, even if this means bigger deficits. This is said to be necessary to accomplish what everyone takes to be Job 1: create more jobs. Personally, I’ll go this far in agreeing with the budget-busting strategy: if we really have reason to believe that deficit spending in 2010 and 2011 will be necessary to reduce the national debt in 2012 and 2013, then sure, borrow the money. This would indeed make sense if we are mired in a short-term economic crisis that could be alleviated with the right kind of stimulus package, which would unleash lending by banks, hiring by businesses, and spending by consumers … and thus result in a rapid increase to our tax base.

In theory, then, a Keynesian influx of spending might make sense to jump start our economy. But in practice, you’ll forgive me for being cynical that a second stimulus package would accomplish that goal. After all, the first such package was hardly a lean, mean economic-multiplier machine. Rather than being finely tuned to direct Government funds precisely to those areas where they could have the greatest impact on the economy, the first stimulus package had “political compromise” written all over it. Right wingers got their tax cuts, and not necessarily the tax cuts that were most needed to address our economic woes. And legislators from the left and the right got their pork projects, all of which could easily be justified; after all, even the notorious Bridge to Nowhere would have created at least SOME jobs.

Until I can see that this Government is responsible enough to wage a war on unemployment with smart, state-of-the-art weapons, I remained unconvinced that massive stimulus bills are the answer. But I am equally unconvinced that the GOP has somehow “seen the light” when it comes to fiscal responsibility. To me, this issue requires a bi-partisan solution. Barack must demonstrate that he is serious in this area, and he has already made efforts in that direction. But he can’t do this alone. We need to hear from the Republicans something that will convince America that once they’re in power, they won’t return to their own budget busting ways. To accomplish that, it is time to hear the GOP get on the airwaves and explain when it is that deficit spending is appropriate and when it is not. Let’s hear the Republicans address the behavior of their hero, Ronald Reagan. Are they willing to criticize their hero’s legacy in that regard? Or are they going to argue that the “Cold War” demanded huge deficits? And what about 9/11, did that support the need for big deficits as well? Surely, we all must recognize by now that a politician in power can ALWAYS find a pretext to justify deficit spending, and unless times are unusually good, that pretext can sound pretty reasonable … if you’re not an honest-to-God deficit hawk.

We can no longer afford to keep growing our national debt. Anyone with any clue about present demographic trends would have to agree with that statement. But how can we stop our addiction to deficit spending? How can we take “protecting the unborn” to mean something broader than simply caring about fetuses? It is the primary responsibility of the Republicans, as the party NOT in power, to convince us all that they are sincere on this issue and not simply taking a position that is convenient at the moment. For now, you’ll forgive me if I remain skeptical.

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