Sunday, December 12, 2010

Our Tax Cut Insanity

Imagine this scenario. A shopper brings $100 to the store to shop for groceries. After filling the cart she goes to check out and discovers that the total comes to $125. So what happens then?

In the practical world, she would ask the checkout person to take away $25 worth of groceries from the bill. Or if she felt that all of her purchases were really necessary, she can put the shortfall on her credit card to pay back later.

Of course she could have complained about how much food has gone up. Or perhaps about how the store charges what she feels is too much for her food. She could have even promised herself that next time, she would go to the store with only a $75 shopping list of groceries.

But try as she may, she just couldn’t find $25 worth of groceries she could do without. So she puts the extra $25 worth on her credit card for this and future trips to the store.

So why not bring $125 each time to the store? Because she is convinced that each time she goes to the store, she will find a way to cut out that extra $25 and not have to put in on the credit card. But that never happens and the credit card balance keeps going up and up.

This grocery store scenario is a pretty good match to the behavior of Congress when it comes to our annual federal budgets here in the US. We don’t have enough tax money coming in to pay the total bill. So we borrow the rest and vow to spend less next year so we don’t have to borrow more.

But it never works out that way. While we all have our own ideas on where to cut the budget, there is not enough of a consensus to ever make it happen. For example, most liberals feel that we spend far too much on our military. But most conservatives feel that the military budget is untouchable. And many conservatives feel that we spend too much on entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare. But liberals feel these are untouchable. So the process of making any significant cuts in the federal budget invariably leads to Congressional gridlock.

So it would stand to reason that if we can’t cut spending to balance our budget and not put more on the credit card, we need to raise taxes to make up the difference. But instead, the supply side economists starting with David Stockman who was President Reagan’s budget director, advocated for and helped to pass tax cuts with the idea of stimulating the economy to make up for the lost tax revenue. But instead, the lack of tax money simply resulted in a greater shortfall and the need to put more money on the credit card.

Paying less in taxes with the idea of “starving the beast” to reduce the size of government has long been a part of the conservative ideology. But tax cuts without corresponding spending cuts only puts us deeper in the hole which requires us to borrow even more.

But instead of learning our lesson under Reagan that tax cuts do little more than create larger deficits, President George W. Bush passed another major tax cut in addition to a major spending increase in the way of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. The result was more record deficits and more borrowing – mostly from the Chinese. With the Chinese now owning so much of our debt, trying to deal with them on their often unfair trade practices that have drained us of jobs has become increasingly difficult.

A legacy left from the Reagan and Bush tax cuts is an attitude by the conservatives that we can get all of the government we need without having to pay enough taxes to balance the budget. Instead of being “deficit hawks” we now started to get
Republican excuses for the deficits.

Vice-President Dick Cheney famously told former Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill, that "deficits don't matter." What's interesting and alarming, however, is that different Republican factions believe deficits don't matter for opposite and incompatible reasons.

Supply-siders believe deficits don't matter because tax cuts so boost investment and productivity that the economy grows its way out of debt. The opposite, "starve the beast" faction, epitomized by tax tactician Grover Norquist, hope tax cuts will indeed create deep deficits that will then force spending cuts. But both things can't be true.

Under George W. Bush, the merry ideology calls for tax cuts in all seasons for all reasons. Spending has increased faster than under Clinton, and deficits have ballooned, yet tax cutting marches on.

Another huge byproduct of the Bush tax cuts was their benefit to the wealthiest which has resulted in a huge concentration of income and wealth at the very top of the food chain.

With the middle and lower classes now suffering economic hard times, it is hopeless to try and balance the budget by asking more taxes from them. This is what I argue in a previous posting
Make the Rich Pay Their Fair Share!

Due to technical reasons, the Bush tax cuts could not be passed as a permanent measure but instead are due to expire at the end of 2010. Logic would dictate that the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans that created so much of the deficit should be allowed to expire. But for Republicans, tax cuts are a religion and the Senate Republicans have vowed to kill all legislation including unemployment compensation extensions until the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans (their political base) are extended first.

Despite these tax cuts having been shown to do little more than increase the deficit and our credit card balance (the National Debt) now approaching $14 trillion, the conservatives’ insane fervor for tax cuts continues unabated, even for those who claim that they believe in balanced budgets. The classic definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results certainly applies here.

Even David Stockman, the man who helped to start it all has finally admitted to the insanity in a recent
60 Minutes interview.

(Extending the Bush tax cuts is) rank demagoguery. We should call it for what it is. If these people were all put into a room on penalty of death to come up with how much they could cut, they couldn't come up with $50 billion, when the problem is $1.3 trillion. So, to stand before the public and rub raw this anti-tax sentiment, the Republican Party, as much as it pains me to say this, should be ashamed of themselves!

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