‘An Unhappy Birthday’

My favorite economics writer, Robert Samuelson, has written a terrific but depressing column on the occasion of this nation’s 235th birthday. And it feeds right into the prevailing narrative of this blog.

Republicans and Democrats are not getting the job done. As Samuelson sees it, Democrats are “reactionaries” in refusing to face up to the limitations of what government can accomplish with the funds available. “Tax the rich,” say the Dems. In other words, raise taxes on anyone who makes more than the typical Democratic voter.

Republicans, on the other hand, are “radicals.” GOP “promises of more tax cuts either border on dishonesty or imply huge unspecified spending cuts that would devastate national defense, states and localities, and the poor,” Samuelson said.

To that I would add a few thoughts of my own:

Neither party has really embraced the non-partisan Simpson-Bowles or Rivlin-Domenici plans for restoring fiscal discipline. Why? Both plans call for a combination of painful spending cuts and tax increases. Look at the composition of those commissions. Notice how the title of each chair is preceded by the word “former?” Former senator Alan Simpson, former budget chief Alice Rivlin.

Why? No sitting public official of either party can come out with the kinds of recommendations made by those two groups. Why? Because they belong to political parties that would, on some level, find those conclusions to be heretical. A Republican who calls for a tax increase or a Democrat who advocates for significant cuts in social programs would either lose a re-election bid or face an ugly primary challenge. Even unelected White House officials such as Rivlin and Erskine Bowles would probably have found themselves out of a job if they had promulgated such apostasies.

So what we have is a dreadful situation in which legislative gridlock has become the order of the day. Why? Because the politicians who run our government are more concerned about their careers than they are about saving the country. This brings to mind what George Washington said in his farewell address about party power struggles, which he called a “frightful despotism:”

But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.

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