From: The New York Times
November 22, 2010
Sin and Taxes
By DAVID BROOKS
This has been a great month for conversation. The Bipartisan Policy Center and the chairmen of the fiscal commission released big plans for reducing debt and reforming government. This has set off a deluge of interesting commentary about how we should govern ourselves in the coming century.
But is any of this going anywhere? Are any elected officials actually going to follow through on these plans? Has anybody discovered a political formula to get spending cuts, tax increases and other reforms through the Congress?
I’ve spent the past few days calling Congressional leaders and other budget mavens to get an answer to that question. The answer is No.
Nobody has a political strategy for getting anything like this passed in the short term. There is very little likelihood the political class as currently constituted will address the looming fiscal disaster soon.
Some Republicans have been talking honestly about cutting entitlement spending, but almost no Republican seems willing to accept tax increases as part of a bipartisan budget deal. You could offer Republicans a deal that was 80 percent spending cuts and 20 percent tax increases and they’d say no. They’d say no to 90-10, too.
Ronald Reagan raised taxes 12 separate times during his presidency. But “No New Taxes” has become the requisite for membership in today’s G.O.P. Without a tax increase there will never be a bipartisan deal and without a bipartisan deal there will never be a solution because no party will ever take sole responsibility for the brutal spending cuts that are also required to reduce the debt.
The Democrats don’t offer much hope either. Some moderate Democrats would like a big budget summit. Put everything on the table. Don’t come out without a plan.
But the Democratic Party is in the middle of an identity crisis. The liberals are fighting hard to make sure the moderates don’t gain control of the party (Nancy Pelosi’s re-election as leader was partially about that). These mobilized and defensive liberals are certainly not going to hand control of the government to the few remaining budget hawks and tell them to go remake the welfare state.
The liberal Democrats show no sign of accepting significant spending cuts to the programs they regard as their movement’s greatest achievements. They are in no mood to revisit health care, even though Medicare will have to be hit to get the debt under control. Many of them are in no mood even to acknowledge the scope of the problem, as their responses to last week’s various commission reports demonstrated.
So we’ve still got budget gridlock. But it’s worth stepping back to acknowledge how abnormal this is. As late as the 1980s and 1990s, Congress did pass serious measures to control debt. Across the Atlantic, Britain is enacting a budget with spending cuts and tax increases. In fact, all affluent countries are now faced with the challenge of reforming their welfare states and few are as immobilized as the U.S. is.
This is in part because the problem is so hard — baby boomers are retiring and medical advances raise costs. But the U.S., more than other country, is immobilized by a shift in the ethos of its leadership class.
For centuries, American politicians did not run up huge peacetime debts. It wasn’t because they were unpartisan or smarter or more virtuous. It was because they were constrained by a mentality inherited from the founders. According to this mentality, a big successful nation exists in a state of equilibrium between its many factions. This equilibrium is fragile because we are flawed and fallen creatures and can’t quite trust ourselves. So all of us, but especially members of the leadership class, should practice self-restraint. Moral anxiety restrained hubris (don’t think your side possesses the whole truth) and self-indulgence (debt corrupts character).
This ethos has dissolved, on left and right. The new mentality sees the country not as an equilibrium, but as a battlefield in which the people, who are pure and virtuous, do battle against the interests or the elites, who stand in the way of the people’s happiness.
The ideal leader in this mental system is free from moral anxiety but full of passionate intensity. This leader pushes his troops in lock step before the voracious foe. Each party has its own version of whom the evil elites are, but both feel they’ve more to fear from their enemies than from their own sinfulness.
Compromise is thus impossible. Money matters should be negotiable, but how can one compromise with opponents who are the source of all corruption?
I meet many members of Congress who had hoped to serve under that first ethos but now find themselves living within the second. The good news is an ethos can change: a financial shock, a popular movement, something unexpected. Just don’t expect the big change to emanate from Washington in the near term.