Tuesday, December 7, 2010

What liberal anger on the tax cuts is all about

I remember when the first Bush tax cuts were passed back in 2001. It was a political masterstroke for Republicans because -- unlike President Obama's stimulus tax cuts -- they made damn sure everybody knew their taxes were lower. How? They had the federal government send big checks to nearly every taxpayer in the country. Lots of people tucked the money into their bank accounts or went out and bought TVs, but at the largely lefty Mennonite church I was attending at the time, there was a fair amount of hand-wringing.

It wasn't that my fellow congregants were fans of high taxes. And it's not as though they were fans of every part of government -- it was a lefty Mennonite church, after all, with a pretty strong pro-peace stance. But the churchgoers recognized that there were things that government does that they not only like, but think are necessary to the just and proper functioning of society: social services, retirement income, medical care for the poor, that kind of thing. And they believed the tax cuts were likely to diminish financial support for those very worthy efforts. As a result, some church members talked openly -- and advocated -- sending the Bush tax cut checks to various charities. The money, they suspected, was going to be needed.

And that's what the liberal anger about Obama's tax cut deal is all about. For the last 30 years, Democrats have been derided by the GOP as "tax and spend liberals." It's supposed to be slur, but in a sense it's a badge of honor: Liberals were trying to actually pay for what they were buying, instead of putting it on a credit card. They even tried to make the health reform law into a deficit reduction measure; you can argue (as conservatives do) that there' some hocus-pocus going on with that effort -- but it's notable that Dems even make the effort. Republicans certainly don't: In the last decade they've given us two wars and the Medicare drug benefit financed pretty much entirely with borrowing from China. They have been for bigger government, in other words, but they haven't been willing to pay for it. Only one of the parties has been adult about the balance between spending and resources, but somehow it's the GOP parades around as the party of fiscal conservatism. It's ... galling.

And that's what it boils down to. Liberals think there are some services that government is uniquely well-positioned to provide. Extending the Bush tax cuts more than likely hastens the day those services are cut or eliminated, because the money we use to pay for them now will probably be redirected towards debt payments instead. (It's not like the Pentagon budget ever goes down.) Extending the tax cuts -- and, like the continuing fixes to the Alternative Minimum Tax, I'm willing to bet we've entered an era of permanent temporary extensions of the Bush cuts -- plunges us more fully into becoming a debt-laden country with a shredded safety net. It's difficult to discern an upside to this.

No comments: