Politics of Denial

There are moments when our political system, whose essential job is to mediate conflicts in broadly acceptable and desirable ways, is simply not up to the task. It fails. This may be one of those moments. What we learned in 2011 is that the frustrating and confusing budget debate may never reach a workable conclusion. It may continue indefinitely until it’s abruptly ended by a severe economic or financial crisis that wrenches control from elected leaders.
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The trouble is that, while the economics of giveaway policies have changed, the politics haven’t. Liberals still want more spending, conservatives more tax cuts. (Although the tax burden has stayed steady, various “cuts” have offset projected increases and shifted the burden.) With a few exceptions, Democrats and Republicans haven’t embraced detailed takeaway policies to reconcile Americans’ appetite for government benefits with their distaste for taxes. President Obama has provided no leadership. Aside from Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, few Republicans have.
No one wants to take away; it’s more fun to give. All of 2011’s budget feuds — over the debt ceiling, the supercommittee, the payroll tax cut — skirted the central issues. There’s a legitimate debate about how fast deficits should be reduced to avoid jeopardizing the economic recovery, notes Charles Blahous, a White House official in George W. Bush’s administration. But the long-term budget problem, as he says, stems from Social Security, Medicare and other health programs. 
Any resolution of the budget impasse must repudiate, at least partially, the past half-century’s politics. Conservatives look at the required tax increases and say, “No way.” Liberals look at the required benefit cuts and say, “No way.” 
Each reverts to scripted evasions. Liberals imply (wrongly) that taxing the rich will solve the long-term budget problem. It won’t. For example, the Forbes 400 richest Americans have a collective wealth of $1.5 trillion. If the government simply confiscated everything they own, and turned them into paupers, it would barely cover the one-time 2011 deficit of $1.3 trillion. Conservatives deplore “spending” in the abstract, ignoring the popularity of much spending, especially Social Security and Medicare.
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The trouble with the liberal's argument is obvious to everyone but them.

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