In the U.S. budget debates, I certainly favor a balanced budget. It is an idea I felt was right even when Reagan was president and some conservatives were confident that debt wasn’t bad for the nation especially if the economy was growing. That thinking seemed odd to me since Herbert Hoover got criticized for stopping government spending during the depression. So the logic seems to be that whether good times (Reagan) or bad (Hoover), it is always time for deficit spending. That’s how we went from a balanced budget (Clinton) to the debt we have today (Obama).
At the moment I certainly wish the congress would agree on the larger $4 Trillion dollar reduction in the U.S.’s spending habits. I am OK with some tax increases or eliminating some tax breaks/cuts. Balancing the budget and using all of our tools to do it is more important to me than not raising taxes. Getting the budget balanced more quickly justifies some tax increases in my mind.
Of course the problem with tax increases of any kind is that it can be treated by politicians as a quick and easier way to deal with things. They don’t have to make the painful and painfully needed spending cuts if they can keep increasing taxes.
I just happen to think both are needed: we need big time spending reductions, but we also need to pay for those programs that we all like. If people want to keep Social Security and Medicare, I think we are going to have to ante-up more in taxes. We must pay for these programs if we want the benefits we derive from them. And there is polling evidence that Americans want to keep certain government programs funded.
Joe Klein writing in the 25 July 2011 issue of TIME (“The Power Broker”) made a few concluding comments which make sense to me. Writing about the anti-tax fervor among conservatives, Klein notes:
“Indeed, increasing taxes in a reasonable way doesn’t seem to have much effect on the economy at all. Reagan signed a tax increase — yes, a stiff tax increase, the first of three by the Gipper — as a deep recession was coming to an end in 1982 … and the economy boomed. The same thing happened after Bill Clinton’s 1993 tax increase. Confronted with the tax history of the past 30 years, Norquist concedes immediately, ‘Even if it’s a toss-up on that question, there’s still the question of liberty. Taxes are a limitation on liberty. You are stealing money from some people to give it to others.’
Stealing? Actually, in this democracy, there is something called the consent of the governed. If the public wants to provide health care for the elderly, as Newt Gingrich opined in the first Republican presidential debate, it is probably a good idea. In normal times, the corollary principle should be: if you decide to spend the money (on all but long-term capital investments), you have to figure out how to pay for it. That defines a brand more powerful than either party. It used to be called the American way.”
“The consent of the governed” is an operative phrase here which though enshrined in the Declaration of Independence is sometimes forgotten in the polarizing politics of America. In American democracy, the governed – not just the ruling class or the wealthy or those of a particular political ideology – give certain powers to the government. But if “we the people” want to keep certain government services, then we have to be willing to pay for them through taxes. Such government is still according to President Lincoln, “of the people, by the people, and for the people” if it is in fact the consent of the people.
The Constitution limits the government but empowers the governed. The problem of course is that the governed are sometimes unruly and unwise. So if the people consent to government services like Social Security and Medicare it becomes the problem of the congress to raise enough taxes to fund the programs. When the people decide they have had enough taxes they might decide to cut those programs they don’t want to fund. That seems to be the nature of government run by the consent of the governed.
One word which has some negative overtones in our politically polarized times is “compromise.” The concern is that compromise got us what we got, and so ideologues refuse to compromise. They do have a point – it has been the endless series of compromises which led to our nation’s overspending, and deficit spending yields the burgeoning national debt. We cannot afford to allow this to continue. On the other hand, democracy by nature demands negotiations, coalitions and compromises. The “consent of the governed” doesn’t translate into unanimity, but into majority. We have a representative form of government which necessitates our representatives working out a budget plan that can get approval of the majority. It will be a compromise. For the “government” (namely, the representatives we elected) to do their job and govern with the consent of the governed, they are going to have to reach a deal. The pain is it cannot be a deal that continues past bad habits. It has to be a deal that not only shrinks the national debt, but also brings about fundamental change in how our elected representatives choose to spend our tax dollars.
Our civil authorities need the wisdom of Solomon and the courage of David to make the hard decisions and do the right thing for the American economy: shrink the national debt and eliminate the yearly deficit (deal with the past) and curtail future spending so that “we the people” live within our means. If we don’t deal with the past, the future will be bleak indeed. If we fail to remember that the economy does go through cycles of good and bad, we also are doomed to repeat our mistakes and make very bad economic decisions. If we try to reach national prosperity through government spending we will find ourselves at the bottom of an awfully deep and dark hole.
Whether good times or bad, it is always the right time to pray for our elected representatives that they may have the courage to make the hard decisions to correct the imbalances in our government today.