So it turns out that the cure for “epistemic closure” is great quantities of crystal meth. The things you learn from Grover Norquist.
In case you missed it, Norquist came down like a runaway gravel truck on Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, a favorite around these parts. Governor Daniels’s offense was declaring himself open to the possibility that a value-added tax might be an acceptable part of a wide-ranging reform of the federal tax system. Norquist replied, in a Politico interview:
“This is outside the bounds of acceptable modern Republican thought, and it is only the zone of extremely left-wing Democrats who publicly talk about those things because all Democrats pretending to be moderates wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot poll. Absent some explanation, such as large quantities of crystal meth, this is disqualifying. This is beyond the pale.”
Here’s the problem: The deficit is, by my always-suspect English-major math, about 36.3 percent of federal spending ($1.29 trillion deficit out of $3.55 trillion spending). For comparison: Defense accounts for about 18 percent of federal spending. So you could cut out the entire national-security budget, and another Pentagon-sized chunk of non-military spending, and not quite close that deficit. You could cut the Pentagon to $0.00 and eliminate Social Security entirely and just barely get there.
Even great heaping quantities of crystal meth would not be enough to convince me that is going to happen.
Don’t get me wrong: In a perfect world, Exchequer would love to see the budget balanced and some tax cuts enabled through spending reductions alone. Exchequer would also like to be dating Marisa Miller, driving a Morgan Aero, and running a four-minute mile, developments that are about as plausible as Congress’s cutting 36.3 percent of federal spending. Not going to happen.
So, our choices are this: 1. Hold out for the best-case scenario, in which a newly elected Speaker Boehner gives President Obama the complete works of Milton Friedman and everybody agrees to cutting federal spending by more than a third. 2. Keep running deficits and piling up debt. 3. Raise taxes. My preferences, in order, go: 1, 3, 2. And No. 2 is not really acceptable.
Like it or not, taxes are going up: If not today, then in the near future. Even once the deficit is under control, that debt is still going to have to be paid down, lest debt service alone overwhelm the federal budget, necessitating even more tax hikes. If Grover Norquist thinks there’s a tax-free way out of this mess that is both politically and economically realistic, he is living in a fantasy. There’s an old joke that goes: Neurotics build castles in the sky; psychotics live in them. And Grover Norquist seeks tax protection for them.
Norquist’s outfit, Americans for Tax Reform, does a lot of good things. (And so has Grover Norquist, over the years.) But here’s how it describes itself:
Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) opposes all tax increases as a matter of principle.
That’s not a campaign against Big Government — it’s a campaign against math. As ye spend, so shall ye tax. Denying that is not a principle — it’s a tantrum. ATR’s pledge reads:
“I _____ pledge to the taxpayers of the __________ district, of the state of __________, and to all the people of this state, that I will oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes.”
And here is how it should read:
“I _____ pledge to the taxpayers of the __________ district, of the state of __________, and to all the people of this state, that I will oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase spending.”
Spending is the issue, not taxes. Spending is the virus, taxes are the symptom. Norquistism, by focusing on the taxing side of the ledger rather than on the spending side, has for decades enabled Republican spending shenanigans of the sort that helped put the party in the minority and ruined its reputation for fiscal sobriety; it is of a piece with naïve supply-siderism. The Bush-era deficits, and the subsequent discrediting of Republicans’ fiscal conservatism, are the product.
Give me the grown-up despair of Mitch Daniels any day over the happy-talk daydream that says we’re getting out of this mess without paying for it.