The Corner

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Can Billions Solve Problems that Trillions Couldn’t?


Over the weekend, Nick Kristof wrote a much-derided column decrying the failure of the electrical grid and the reliance on private home generators to power through the outages (John Steel Gordon’s takedown is a must-read). While I invite you to read Kristof’s entire column, the shorter version is the following: Low tax rates on the rich, plus failure to deal with climate change, equals decaying infrastructure, increasing inequality, and wealthy opt-outs from public services. (Wait, I thought that climate-change concerns meant we should generate less power, not more — there’s nothing greener than a blackout!)

Leaving aside the particulars of our power grid, I’m simply staggered at the number of things that raising taxes on the rich is now supposed to fix. A partial list: Our crumbling roads, our cracked bridges, our decaying electrical grid, our failing schools, our bankrupt entitlements, our reliance on fossil fuels, and our over-extended public pensions.  

But why will billions more dollars succeed when trillions of dollars have failed? We pour more money into schools, yet educational outcomes don’t improve. We wage a “war on poverty” more expensive than any actual war and yet poverty not only persists but remains stubbornly high. We pump almost a trillion dollars into allegedly shovel-ready “stimulus” only to realize that “shovel-ready” apparently doesn’t mean what we think it means, and even the most modest interstate expansions take longer to complete than, say, the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam — and cost almost as much (If you live in Middle Tennessee, you’re painfully aware that the Great Pyramids were built with hand tools faster than modern construction equipment can pave a five-mile-long lane expansion of I-65 near Franklin).  

I read the likes of Kristof, and I want to shout to the heavens: “We can give you everything you ask, and it won’t work!” The Left misunderstands conservatives when it believes the argument over tax rates is an argument about greed — that wealthier Americans simply want to grab all the money we can. In fact, many of the top 5 percent are among the most generous people in the world; they just tend to give their money to charities that actually produce results. 

Leaving aside — for the moment — the increasingly inverse correlation between taxation and individual liberty (a crucial consideration all its own), we conservatives look at the vast bureaucratic beast with a sense of utter futility. We opt out of government projects and seek personal independence in part because we see government fail time and again — and not for lack of resources. For millions, government is less “the thing we do together” than it is the “monster inflicted upon us,” and the taxes we pay are less a contribution to the well-being of the community than a ransom payment to keep the monster away from our door. That is the crisis that Kristof should decry, not the response of rational citizens who realize that if untold sums of money can’t guarantee, say, a decently reliable power supply or a moderately competent education, then they really are on their own.