Extremism in Defense of Balanced Budgets Is Only Sort of a Vice



Reasonable libertarian Steve Chapman tries to stop worrying and love the most extreme wing of the Tea Party:

Here's my first impression of the tea party movement: It's a rabidly right-wing phenomenon with a shaky grasp of history, a strain of intolerance and xenophobia, a paranoia about Barack Obama, and an unhealthy reverence for Fox News. Any movement that doesn't firmly exclude Birchers, birthers and Islamaphobes is not a movement for me.

Here's my second impression of the tea party movement: We are lucky to have it.

It's a faint hope, that unelectable lunatics might help convince Americans on the need for fiscal sanity. But not as faint as this:

Back in the 1990s, there was a cranky, conspiracy-minded Texas billionaire who had nightmares about free trade with Mexico and imagined that fixing government was as simple as fixing a car. Like Angle and Paladino, Ross Perot sometimes sounded as though he had gone off his meds.

But railing against budget deficits, he captured a staggering 19 percent of the vote as a third-party candidate in the 1992 presidential race against George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The movement he inspired helped force Democrats and Republicans in Washington to restrain expenditures, balance the federal budget and generally stop acting as though there was no tomorrow.

Those of you who lived through the '90s will recall about how long that lasted: about as long as it took to get through the Clinton administration.

The Bush administration's newly released budget projections reveal an anticipated budget deficit of $450 billion for the current fiscal year, up another $151 billion since February. Supporters and critics of the administration are tripping over themselves to blame the deficit on tax cuts, the war, and a slow economy. But the fact is we have mounting deficits because George W. Bush is the most gratuitous big spender to occupy the White House since Jimmy Carter. One could say that he has become the "Mother of All Big Spenders."

That's from "Conservative" Bush Spends More than "Liberal" Presidents Clinton, Carter, published in 2003 by the patchouli-stinking hippies at the Cato Institute, including Chapman's current Reason colleague Veronique de Rugy.

It didn't get better. Here's de Rugy in 2009:

During his eight years in office, President Bush oversaw a large increase in government spending. In fact, President Bush increased government spending more than any of the six presidents preceding him, including LBJ. In his last term in office, President Bush increased discretionary outlays by an estimated 48.6 percent.

Not that Chapman didn't notice:

Blame that on George W. Bush, who arrived billing himself as a compassionate conservative, a description that was accurate except for the adjective and the noun. Whatever his ideology, his policy was to expand federal spending at a rate unseen since President Lyndon Johnson, the architect of the Great Society.

He didn't do it alone, though. Had Bush been a Democrat, Republicans would have fought his budget plans at every turn. But since he was one of theirs, they joined in the spree with gusto, even as they cut taxes and piled up deficits.

Or that he didn't notice the opposite:

For all his appetites and excesses, Clinton was a cautious, centrist sort of Democrat. He had innumerable ideas for things the government could do, but most were small and fairly innocuous. He was willing to go along with Republicans on some of their sound ideas — such as balancing the budget, reforming the welfare system and expanding foreign trade.


The budget deficit, which Clinton (with the help of a Republican Congress) eliminated, would be with us forever. After the gargantuan $1.75 trillion shortfall this year, it would decline briefly before climbing to more than $700 billion a year.

Now, it's true that the Clinton economic boom was aided by a nontrivial tailwind from a bipartisan turn to deregulation and free trade that would in part lead to the economic collapse that Chapman didn't see coming (6/28/07):

But even in the best of times, some trends fall below average. Taken as a whole, the economy is plenty healthy. So why do we insist on seeing it as sickly?

In fairness, a lot of smart people didn't mind the gap, but if you go back and read through the mid-2007 archives of blogs like Calculated Risk or Naked Capitalism, it's clear there was cause for concern about the general health of the nation's economy.

Granted, I am of a different ideology than Chapman, and probably a lot more cynical and pessimistic than he is, but I still trust the possibility of slow progress by fiscally responsible Democrats, instead of the ideological Rube Goldberg machine that Chapman seems to favor: the possibility that an incoherent and sort of embarrassing movement, with backing from big-money boys who are happy to seek corporate welfare if paid to do so will, in the course of leading ideologically extreme candidates to slaughter in general elections . . . eventually end with a balanced budget, provided the ball drops in the cup and makes the cuckoo clock cut Medicare.

Then again, Chapman has another idea: taxing the unemployed and people who don't currently make enough money to be taxed* (yes, that's the article Chapman links to when he says we need to "[revamp] the income tax code so more people have to share in the cost of government").

My ideological disagreement aside, these ideas for returning to fiscal sanity seem to me to be at best logistically, uh, ambitious.

*Update: Here are a couple responses to the Tax Policy Center numbers that Chapman cites (but doesn't explain). Beyond that, I'm curious how America can shift the burden of taxation onto the unemployed. Maybe we can garnish the wages of anyone who's ever received unemployment benefits—that'll show 'em.

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