Here is an exercise that requires some assumptions. Just thinking out loud, here.
First: Assume a simple universe, one in which public finances operate according to simple, Newtonian physics–type rules: Higher tax rates mean precisely proportional higher taxes, lower tax rates mean precisely proportional lower taxes, government spending comes in on budget, etc. (Yes, I know — imagine.)
Second: Assume a world in which public policies, to be enacted, must represent, at some level, a compromise between John Boehner, Harry Reid, and Barack Obama. (Assume a political world that is very much like the present political world.) Or between: Boehner, Reid, and a Generic Republican president; or between Boehner, Mitch McConnel, and Obama.
Third: Assume we as a nation in fact want to balance the budget, and want that deeply enough to do uncomfortable and unpleasant things to make it happen. (That most implausible assumption of these, I reckon.)
Fourth: Assume that we can conduct policy without sending the economy back into recession. (Assume that the positive effects of our budget-balancing discipline equal or outweigh the negative effects of changes in taxing and spending levels.)
Some conditions: We have a very large deficit — 40 percent of federal spending, last time around. We have very large hidden liabilities — unfunded entitlement obligations that will prove massively expensive if we try to pay them and massively disruptive if we do not. There are limitations on our ability to act, and limitations on our ability to not act.
Our issues are taxing and spending. We have some choices, and they are, in the order I prefer them on this particular evening in January:
1. Cut spending, raise taxes.
2. Cut spending, maintain taxes.
3. Cut spending, cut taxes.
4. Maintain spending, raise taxes.
5. Maintain spending, maintain taxes.
6. Maintain spending, cut taxes.
7. Raise spending, raise taxes.
8. Raise spending, maintain taxes.
9. Raise spending, cut taxes.
You may notice a readily identifiable pattern at work here. The Party of Option 1 in Washington in a very small one. Nobody will admit to being a member of the Party of Option 9, but I fear they are in control of the government. (Somebody wants a huge deficit. Is it you?)
The real-world reasons for not raising taxes are many. The ones I find most persuasive are these: 1. Tax hikes have unpredictable effects on taxpayers’ behavior, but one very likely consequence is higher levels of tax-avoidance strategies, resulting in economic inefficiencies; 2. If you succeed in raising revenue, you will simply encourage Congress to engage in higher levels of spending. Okay. I will grant the power of both of those arguments, but I am writing here about a simpler model, in a simpler exercise.
Under my assumptions, I would prefer to cut spending and raise taxes right now, to reduce the deficit as quickly as possible, to eliminate the deficit as quickly as possible, and to begin paying down the debt as quickly as possible. There are many prudential reasons for this, one of which is that I believe the risk of a major crisis in American public finances is very dangerous, more dangerous than is widely appreciated, and ameliorating that risk is worth the price of higher taxes. But I also have simpler reasons for this: We can cut the budget now, and we can raise taxes now. We can cut the NEA and we can cut the military and we can cut Medicare spending. But the debt is piling up, and debt service is, basically, non-negotiable. As debt service takes up a bigger and bigger share of our budget, that is a bigger and bigger piece of the budget that we cannot cut in the future. The worst kind of fiscal crisis is the one that we can neither tax nor cut our way out of, and avoiding that — avoiding even an elevated risk of that eventuality — seems to me worth the price of firing with both barrels against the deficit now.
Here is the thing: All books must eventually balance. We are going to pay $1 in taxes for every $1 in spending, and for every $1 in borrowing we are going to pay $1 plus interest — very, very low interest, at the moment, but who knows if that will be the case in a year? In five years? If you think interest rates for U.S. sovereign debt will remain low — and I hear from those of you who believe so all the time — what are you willing to risk against the possibility that you are wrong? How did you do predicting the 2008 financial crisis, and do you believe government finance, in the United States, is less complicated than bank finance, or insurance-company finance? My view is that the price of being wrong about that risk is potentially very high.
What kind of tax hike would I endorse? I remain very much in favor of the Simpson-Bowles tax proposal. (And “Simpson-Bowles” already sounds like ancient history, doesn’t it? Like Smoot-Hawley? Like the Great Compromise?) Which is to say, I am sympathetic to a tax increase that reduces overall income-tax rates but eliminates most (I would prefer all) deductions, including the destructive mortgage-interest deduction. Many Americans would pay lower taxes under such a reform; many would pay higher taxes, but the net effect would be a tax increase, albeit a modest one. (My very strong preference is for a flat, no-deductions tax, one rate for all forms of income: personal income, dividends, capital gains, inheritances, whatever.) Simpson-Bowles contemplated a 3:1 ratio of spending cuts to tax hikes. Some conservatives I spoke with said they would prefer 5:1 or 10:1. I think I would prefer 5:1, too, but I would take 1:1.
I believe that restoring order to our public finances is not an issue but the issue, the thing that will be the source of endless contentious post-facto debate forever if we get it right — but will define our era if we get it wrong. (And not in a good way.) I believe our public finances are a more important issue than Islamic terrorism or Chinese mercantilism, and a more pressing threat to our national well-being. (I do not believe that those are unimportant; I believe they are less important.)
That being the case, I cannot agree with those who say, for instance, that military-spending cuts should be off the table, or those who say that tax increases, even modest ones performed in the course of simplifying and improving our tax code, are off the table. (Hello, Ryan.) And I will argue that this is a conservative position, conservatism being rooted in prudence and a certain amount of risk-aversion when it comes to political institutions and their grand plans, such as ending poverty or eradicating evil.
I also have in mind a kind of Pascal’s wager for the debt. If those of you who believe that the debt and deficit are basically manageable problems rather than a clear and present danger to the republic are wrong, finding out you are wrong is really, really going to hurt. If I am wrong — what? We shift taxes forward, paying them ourselves instead of foisting them onto our children and grandchildren. No doubt that will do some economic damage. But we also cut the size and scope of government, which will provide some economic benefits, and which is, separately, something that I regard as desirable regardless of how much government we can afford. (The cost is not my only reason for opposing an expansive state.)
Given that the real-world politics of getting this done are difficult and imperfect, and given that at the real policy level rates of change matter more than absolute levels, am I wrong in my fundamental argument that we should throw everything we can at the debt, as fast as we prudently can?
And if I am wrong, why?
— Kevin D. Williamson is a deputy managing editor of National Review and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism, which will be published on Tuesday. You can buy an autographed copy through National Review Online here.