Thursday, April 16, 2009

teabag clarification

Robert takes me to task in the comments. In the service of cleverness, I implied that all the tea party participants were incipient klan members.

This is not true, of course, and my apologies for lumping all the protesters together in this manner. In a more general sense, I do get the idea that a lot of the people (mostly poor, and white) who are most upset by the government's recent policies are motivated by, shall we say, less than appropriate ideas of what makes a person a full citizen of this republic. Not to dwell too much on the point, but growing up in Wise County I had a rather keen insight into the kind of person who is downtrodden in one way or another and who, in a fruitless search for ways to feel better about themselves, ends up settling on, for example, differences in skin color as a way of looking down on others.

But yeah, not everyone is like that, and clearly there are many rational and well-thought-out reasons why one might protest our government's policies. You can read this blog and see a few, in fact. And your humble blogger isn't exactly downtrodden. (And, I would be remiss if I didn't ask where these teabag folks were during the last 8 years as George W. Bush was implementing massive increases in the size and power of government.)

But to address the substantive point here, I think it is correct to say that this particular protest was somewhat incoherent. (See this Sullivan post for the hodgepodge of "issues" represented -- it is truly laughable.) As I pointed out, T.E.A. apparently stands for Taxed Enough Already. Well, taxes are low -- at least relatively speaking, compared to the last several decades. And yet, government spending is high -- compared to just about any historical context. In my view this is unsustainable. This country has far too much debt, public and private.

But, ultimately, if these protests are to be taken seriously, then they have to drop the "high taxes" focus (taxes aren't high), and concentrate on something else. And if that something else is government spending, that's fine, but then you have to say where you want to make cuts. Social Security? Medicare? Military? Cutting any of these items is politically impossible, and together they represent over 60% of the federal budget. Debt service is another 8%. All the other many many things the government does and pays for are part of the remaining 30%. Presumably some of this stuff is worthwhile. Some of it is almost certainly not, but you're never going to be able to cut out even half of that even if you performed your budget-cutting with a chainsaw. And even if you could, you're still looking at a reduction of only 15%. Which could be used to pay down the debt. Or, of course, you could lower taxes by 15%, which wouldn't really be that big of a cut (especially for the type of lower-income folks who make up the bulk of the Fox News protesters).

And then you have to confront the idea that cutting government spending in the middle of a massive economic downturn may very likely represent a monumental disaster of an economic policy. I'm certainly no economist, but from my admittedly cursory investigation of this topic, it appears there is somewhat of a consensus of economic thought that says that this is a very bad idea. (Think Hoover.)

Anyway, I'm not prepared to argue this last point. But it definitely is arguable, and in fact it was argued by the candidates in the last presidential election. One of them won, and the other one lost.

But beyond all of that, the fact is, we are going through a very painful period in this country because we -- collectively -- lived beyond our means for a long period of time. This needs to stop somewhere, or we're likely doomed. On this, I'm sure Robert and I can agree. Furthermore, I agree -- in the abstract -- that there is an almost exact inverse relationship between the size of a government and the amount of freedom enjoyed by its citizens. And, as a believer in the concept of maximizing freedom, I too would, in principle, love to see a great deal of government shrinkage. The trouble is in how to apply that principle in the current context. It's not simple.


Anonymous said...

Spot on. We, (government, citizens, corporations) have been living on credit too long. It's time to cut back and make hard choices.

Spending more on bailouts and stimulus is like pulling the goalie in hockey, it's a desperate stunt that won't work.

Point of clarification- I was bitching about spending and entitlements while W was president.

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