Ev Ehrlich's Everyday Economics

24Nov/11Off

Clark Kent

The failure of the Super Committee to reach a comprehensive, long-term budget deal is the most startling, unanticipated outcome since the Sun rose in the east this morning.

The idea that the Congress could design a “trigger,” or some other kind of event, that would compel it to give up its power to undo whatever it did is reminiscent of the philosophic debate that compelled the attention of pre-teen boys in the early 1960’s, that is, could god create a rock so heavy that He couldn’t lift it, or in the lay version, what would happen if Superman fought himself? The difference is that now the question goes from Zen koan to policy debacle. The answer may be found in a different allegory, this one being the cigarette case that Leonid Brezhnev had made for himself as an aid in his battle to give up the killer weed. It had a time-sensitive lock that would only dispense a smoke every 30 minutes. And it worked, except that in the time between clicks, the First Secretary would bum smokes from his guards, his driver, or anybody else who was around, while he tried to pry the thing open.

And so, the Super Committee shadow play ends, with enough time to regret the outcome and avoid the consequences. In such a circumstance, trading accusations of blame is a half-hearted exercise. The two sides blame each other, and my disagreement with their positions is not that they’re both wrong, but that they’re both not specific enough. It’s not a matter of whether Republicans or Democrats are to blame, although you can critique the heck out of either side. Sure, Republican obstinacy about taxes, and their specific reference to progressive taxation as “class warfare,” is particularly problematic. But there’s more to it than that.

Being “blamed” for the Super Committee’s failure means taking the blame for the dynamic that led to this futile exercise in the first
place. How’d we get into a situation in which the two sides of the debate – even if asymmetrically – would rather disagree than agree? In this sense, I’d “blame” two people for the nation’s – and the Super Committee’s – failure to rise to the challenge of resolving long-term deficits. The first is Grover Norquist, and the second the President.

You can’t help but be impressed at what Norquist and Americans for Tax Reform, a conduit for yet more Scaiffe and Olin money into the national political process, have accomplished. Its “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” is the single most important reason why the Super Committee failed – because its Republic members were afraid of the well-financed wrath that would confront them had they supported a compromise. I’m sure that even Norquist and his funders know that sometimes the Pledge is atrocious policy; for example, their opposition to removing the odious tax incentives for ethanol must have given them pause. But they’ve drawn the line expertly – once you make thinking about raising taxes a thought crime, you’ve fenced off the issue.

The Pledge has been particularly counterproductive in that it has given rise to the stupid stuff that’s said about raising taxes. And I mean legitimately, straightforwardly stupid. Stuff like progressive taxation is “a tax on job creators,” or that increasing the top rate in the personal income tax structure is “class warfare” that “divides us.” I don’t think people are racing off to sign the Pledge because they believe this stupid stuff. Heavens, did you watch every Republican candidate raise his or her hand and swear they’d never sign a budget compromise that was only dime-on-the-dollar tax revenues? My guess is that half that crowd knows they’re doing something stupid – Romney and Huntsman certainly, probably Santorum and Gingrich, who’ve been around long enough to remember reality. The belief that advocating a higher top rate is “class warfare” begs Socratic inspection – would a larger zero bracket be class warfare? Is the Earned Income Tax Credit class warfare? Is progressive taxation in its own right? Oh, for Pete’s sake.

I can forgive this kind of rhetorical flourish as I tolerate it is those with whom I more often agree – in an age in which media is ubiquitous, Orwell’s view of politics as the art of contorting language has been borne out. The point here is that once politicians take the Norquist cum Faust Pledge, they need something to say to explain this view, much as other proponents flail around looking for a reason why they support commodity grain programs, or subsidies for “American bottoms” in the merchant marine. And so the rhetoric meets a need – class warfare, taxes on “job creators,” and so on. And when the material conditions of
the public debate change – as they always do – the rhetoric will be shucked off like an escaped con ditching his prison-issued outfit.

But for the moment, the Pledge has money behind it, a few recalcitrants have been shot in the town square as a warning to the others, and the rhetoric, therefore, will persist. As for Norquist, this Facebook post makes clear his victory and speaks to
his objective:

Today in The Guardian, ATR President Grover Norquist wrote the super committee has set the stage for the battle for the soul of America regarding the size and scope of the federal government. The 2012 elections will be round three in this historic
fight.

Back to the battle for the soul in a moment. If Norquist is responsible for taking part of the political spectrum off to Terra Incognita, then the president is responsible for failing to isolate them there. I don’t need polling data to know that the American people feel that the value of the Tax Pledge is not infinite – that there’s some point at which they’d accept some kind of higher taxes or greater progressivity in the tax system, particularly to preserve some portion of Medicare and Social Security, if not some public investment. The “grand bargain” is waiting to be struck. But the President doesn’t seem willing to be its advocate, which takes us to his culpability here. The Bowles-Simpson Commission gave him an opportunity to plant a flag on the “middle” and he wouldn’t take it. He stayed away from the work of the Super Committee in a way that was reminiscent of his arm’s length approach to the Congressional deliberations on health care. Once again, he appears to be the Great Presider on domestic policy,
hoping to extend the civility, the composure, “come, let us reason together” approach that worked at Law Review to the great issues of our time.

Well, that’s unfair, perhaps, because the President must surely realize that Norquit’s Facebook post is exactly right – the debate is leading up to a national referendum on whether to preserve the core elements of what has been a social consensus since the Depression – progressive taxation, government support for some services (health and public investment) and some claimants (the poor and elderly). The Super Committee was doomed to fail because both sides would rather have “a battle for the soul” of America than reach a compromise that made that battle moot. The President must get that, but he’s yet to claim the center and isolate the Pledge advocates. Perhaps he believes that the center will go unclaimed until he’s ready to claim it. Or that taking a real position risks putting a thousand bulls eyes on your back and becoming a policy Saint Sebastian. Or, and here my level of concern rises, that the President’s real vision is focused on how we relate to each other and less on how society is supposed to work.

The next election is going to be exactly what Norquist says it’s going to be, and that’s probably all to the good. And there’s a big
difference between letting the Super Committee twist and not being ready to lead one side of a great debate. The President needs to draw a line by becoming an advocate for the grand bargain, perhaps starting next January’s budget submission. The Super Committee wasn’t Super and we didn’t need it to be, but somewhere under the President’s mild-mannered exterior, we need
to find Clark Kent.

 

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