The Unlikely Conservative

There are conservative icons more substantial than Barry Goldwater, who had no problem with gay folks, and Ronald Reagan, who, as president, raised taxes eleven times, and told congress, with some passion, that they’d be insane not to raise the debt ceiling – that would ruin the country – and who worked out a nuclear arms reduction deal with the Soviets. But Reagan did talk a good game. It’s just that he was a pragmatist. There’s idealistic theory, and then there’s keeping things from falling apart. And maybe conservatism is, or once was, about doing what’s necessary, and just what’s necessary – and no more. So you do that, but conservatives don’t get all wild-eyed-enthusiastic about the latest big idea about how things should really be done. That’s for the nutty liberals with their latest pie-in-the-sky schemes. Conservatives are the ones who say calm down, take it easy there, Sparky. Do what’s necessary, and do what has always worked in the past. Don’t go all crazy.

But somehow that has changed. Now it’s all rigid idealistic theory. Lowering taxes increases tax revenue, and the less people pay in the more money pours into government coffers. What? Yeah, yeah – growth will take care of things. If no one pays taxes the economy will grow. That’s the theory. And shutting down as much of the government as possible, so its purchases of goods and services from the private economy for a wide range of public purposes simply comes to a halt, tossing millions out of their jobs, will make the economy thrive and be vibrant and so on. Neither result has ever occurred in any economy in history when this had been tried, but the idea is that both might work this time, if we try hard enough. The public seems to buy this. Economists do not.

And now you add to this, with the current debt ceiling debate, the idea that true conservatives never compromise – they never concede a point, and they never give up a little, even to get a lot. Conservatives stand firm. If the other guy says the sky is blue you say no, it’s not. So modern American politics – as it relates to taxes and government spending – becomes a version of that Monty Python sketch about the dead parrot – This parrot is dead! – No it’s not!

Yes, you never admit that the parrot is dead. You never give an inch. But, unfortunately, there are conservative icons more substantial than Goldwater and Reagan who just didn’t think that way. There’s the father of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke – “All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter.”

Yes, he did say that. He too was a pragmatist – maintaining the impossible ends the very possibility of government. And then there’s Samuel Johnson – he who was inordinately fond of the poets of the late Augustan Age (but did write in English, not Latin) and who thought the American Revolution was just a bunch of upstarts, who didn’t understand one damned thing about continuity and the accepted ways, being total jerks. And Johnson said this – “Life cannot subsist in society but by reciprocal concessions.”

How can this be? Johnson is saying it’s more than government – life itself cannot exist without reciprocal concessions. Today’s conservatives are going to have to find themselves some new icons.

But we do have this debate about the debt ceiling, and on Monday, July 11, Kevin Drum offers this:

A reminder for everyone writing about the debt ceiling games: We don’t reach the debt ceiling on August 2nd. We reached it two months ago, on May 16th. Treasury has been playing games ever since (“borrowing” from pension funds, suspending securities that help states manage their finances, etc. etc.).

August 2nd is merely the date when the games run out and we actually stop paying some bills. But just for the record, Congress blew through the debt ceiling long ago and has been mucking around ever since.

Yes, they’re not doing much, and there’s Paul Waldman:

Watching the Sunday blabbers, I was impressed with the facility with which the Republicans switched back and forth between two entirely different, and contradictory, rationales for their position on the budget and the debt ceiling. On one hand, they’d say, we simply have to cut the deficit, which is why we need to slash spending. OK, someone would say, why won’t you accept some increase in taxes? You know, to cut the deficit? Absolutely not, they’d say – you can’t raise taxes when the economy is bad! That’s the last thing you want to do!

Waldman argues that Obama should point out how absurdly contradictory this is. Either we need to stimulate the economy – that would mean tax cuts and spending increases – or we need to cut the deficit – and that would mean tax increases and spending cuts. You don’t get to do half of one and half of the other.

And Kevin Drum comments:

Well, sure, if you’re a garden variety Keynesian. But if you’re a conservative, then you consider tax cuts good for growth, which helps reduce the deficit. Ditto for spending cuts, which not only reduce the deficit in the obvious way, but also result in a smaller, more growth-friendly public sector. There’s no contradiction at all in supporting both.

So the question isn’t whether Republicans are contradicting themselves. They have a theory in which they aren’t. Instead, the question is this: can Barack Obama persuade the American public that Keynesian economics is basically correct and that Republican economics is therefore crazy?

Drum argues that may be impossible:

Everyone loves paying less in taxes, and there’s a very big chunk of the public that also loves spending cuts as long as they’re aimed at poor people. So they have every personal incentive to buy into the GOP’s high-minded justifications for stuff they want to do anyway. And they do.

After three decades, we still haven’t figured out how to effectively fight voodoo economics. It would be nice if Obama started talking sense instead of caving in to conservative nonsense, but the problem goes way beyond just him.

No one is thinking this through now, and maybe they can’t. And Matthew Yglesias suggests an impossible easy way out of this mess:

As we wait for President Obama’s nine hundredth press conference about debt ceiling negotiations, it’s worth reviewing the formidable structural barriers to making a deal. The biggest stumbling block is that Republicans are uniformly opposed to increasing tax rates and nearly unanimous in their opposition to closing tax loopholes. A smaller stumbling block is that some large segment of Democrats is deeply hesitant to cut Social Security benefits. A Politico story today reminds us that House Republicans don’t want to cut military spending any more than House Democrats want to cut retirement payments. What’s more, the House Republicans are riven by intra-caucus dynamics such that John Boehner doesn’t want to agree to anything Eric Cantor hasn’t agreed to since that would open the door for Cantor to challenge him, but Cantor doesn’t want to agree to anything since that would entail giving up the chance to challenge Boehner.

This is a mess, but it needn’t be:

Surveying the scene, perhaps everyone should take a deep breath and recall the traditional way the country has avoided default when the debt ceiling needs raising: Congress raises the debt ceiling.

It’s that simple. The same kind of “clean” debt ceiling increase that’s passed repeatedly over the past 100 years will allow the country to avoid default without tax increases, without defense cuts, and without slashing entitlement spending. Education will be spared. So will transportation, health care, farm subsidies, and everything else. The interest rates investors are charging the American government to buy our debt are extremely low right now. The world economy is suffering from an excessive demand for American debt, not by reluctance to lend. All we need to do to keep our finances flowing is to raise the statutory debt ceiling.

This is basic housekeeping, and the “crisis” can wait:

At some point, things will change, and we may face a crisis that requires bipartisan deal-making and “tough choices.” Right now, though, the only crisis we face is an entirely self-created one. House Republicans wanted to create a hostage situation to force President Obama to propose steep spending cuts. But when Obama came to the table with a proposal for steep cuts, it turned out that Republicans don’t actually want to sign a bipartisan deal – which is fine. Don’t sign a deal! The absence of a deal in no way forces a crisis. Just raise the debt ceiling, fight the 2012 elections, and pick up the long-term budget issue then.

The world has plenty of problems on its plate right now. The long-term U.S. structural deficit isn’t one of them. The expiration of the Treasury Department’s borrowing authority is one. And the latter problem can be solved without addressing the former.

And at his news conference Monday Obama did try to make it easy, sort of. John Dickerson suggests Obama laid a guilt trip on these guys, trying to persuade Republicans to support a deal on the debt ceiling by basically shaming them, although it’s tricky:

He is trying to convince House Republicans to agree to something their supporters will hate with someone they hate – and he’s adding to the degree of difficulty by actively antagonizing them. Finally, he’s trying to do all this in record time, faster than the usual rules of politics allow.

He’s got to help Boehner come up enough votes to win the 218 needed for a majority, so he needs to be careful:

The first hurdle in this effort is that Republicans are suspicious of any deal Boehner might make simply because of the person he’s making it with. According to the latest Gallup poll, only 13 percent of Republicans approve of Obama. His rating among the GOP base is even lower. If you’ve attended any GOP rally over the last several months, you know this. Simply mentioning Obama’s name, his penchant for administration czars, his use of a teleprompter, or his alleged “bowing to Muslim leaders” (as one Senate candidate put it recently), is sure to produce a roar of disapproval.

The second hurdle is taxes. A grand compromise will require considerable revenue. The president and the speaker noodled the idea of a complicated set of trade-offs that would allow taxes to be increased in some places but lowered in others. One idea was tax increases today with a promise of tax reform in the coming months, with a fail-safe of across-the-board tax cuts if the reform never materialized. But there’s no arrangement sturdy enough to convince conservatives (or the Wall Street Journal editorial page). No matter what Boehner might say, if it’s a big deal, there must be a tax hike in there somewhere.

So Obama tried a range of shaming techniques at the news conference – hinting at issues of self-respect, fairness, bravery, and logic:

He is still trying to get a big deal, said the president, because this crisis has presented a special opportunity to put aside ideology and achieve something lasting. Sounding the bugle call, he asked “If not now, when?”

Obama also returned to the idea of “shared sacrifice,” arguing that those who have disproportionately benefited in recent years and not suffered as much during the downturn should shoulder some portion of the burden. The majority of deficit reduction will come from spending reductions that are likely to affect those who are not so well off.

The president’s biggest gambit was to show how much grief he was willing to take in order to get a big deal. If he was willing to anger progressives by suggesting changes to Medicare and Social Security, he said, Republicans should be brave enough to take a little heat from their side. Questions at the news conference that stressed Democratic discontent helped Obama make this point (in fact, he may have even called on people he knew would raise these issues to improve the show).

Finally, the president tried offending Republicans. He repeatedly praised Boehner for acting in good faith. “I think he’s a good man who wants to do right by the country,” he said. (White House aides don’t feel this way about, say, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.) But when talking about his predicament, the president said “the politics that swept him into the speakership were good for a midterm election, they’re tough for governing. … Part of what the Republican caucus generally needs to recognize is that American democracy works when people listen to each other, we’re willing to give each other the benefit of the doubt, we assume the patriotism and good intentions of the other side, and we’re willing to make some sensible compromises to solve big problems.”

And of course he could have offered to resign, or buy every Republican in the nation a pony, or a unicorn. It wouldn’t matter. They’ll just keep saying the parrot is alive.

Of course they will. And someone who can explain that is James K. Galbraith, the author of The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too – who offers this item on The Catastrophic Debt Ceiling Debate – about how an archaic, bad-faith law is being pressed to its absurd extreme:

The debt ceiling was first enacted in 1917. Why? The date tells all: we were about to enter the Great War. To fund that effort, the Wilson government needed to issue Liberty Bonds. This was controversial, and the debt ceiling was cover, passed to reassure the rubes that Congress would be “responsible” even while the country went to war. It was, from the beginning, an exercise in bad faith and has remained so every single second to the present day.

Today this bad-faith law is pressed to its absurd extreme, to force massive cuts in public programs as the price of not-reneging on the public debts of the United States. Never mind that to force default on the public obligations of the United States is plainly unconstitutional. Section 4 of the 14th amendment says in simple language that public debts, once duly authorized by law and including pensions, by the way, “shall not be questioned.” The purpose of this language was to foreclose, to put beyond politics, any possibility that the Union would renege on debts and pensions and bounties incurred to win the Civil War. But the application is very general and the courts have ruled that the principle extends to the present day.

And Galbraith argues that what is going on in Congress at this moment already violates that mandate:

It is an effort to subvert the authority of the government to meet and therefore to incur obligations of every possible stripe. It is an attack on the concept of government itself – as the “Tea Party” by its very name would no doubt agree. It therefore paints those deficit hawks that are using the debt ceiling to take budget hostage as enemies of the United States Constitution.

The President, though supposedly a constitutional expert and though sworn to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution, will not say this. Instead he appears to treat the Constitution as an optional matter, to which he will not resort, in the hope that by negotiating with the hostage-takers he can reach some reasonable outcome that will preserve everyone’s good name.

And Galbraith is amazed at something pretty basic here:

What fiscal crisis? The great unasked question in this summer of sound-and-fury is “why?” The United States has many problems at the moment: a high-and-stubborn unemployment rate, a foreclosure catastrophe, a slowing economy that has not recovered and will not recover from the Great Crisis, and the ongoing challenges of infrastructure, energy and climate change. Fiscal crisis? The entire thing is a figment, made up of wise-men’s warnings repeated endlessly and linked to the projections of technicians at the Congressional Budget Office and elsewhere.

And after he deals with that in convincing detail, there’s another matter:

Is it possible that cutting government is, by some other path, the way to economic recovery?

There are many people who believe fervently in the resilience of the private sector and for whom government is just a burden. Some of those people are pure predators: resource magnates, media magnates, banking magnates. Others have blinded themselves to the role government actually plays in sustaining the advanced networks, human protections and social systems that make up our lives, and imagine that one can go back to the world of subsistence farming, church charity and credit from the corner store. But there were many fewer people in that world, they didn’t do what we do, and they didn’t live nearly so long.

In broad terms, today’s government does four major things:

1) It provides for the national defense.

2) It purchases goods and services from the private economy for a wide range of public purposes, most of them individually quite small-scale in relation to GDP.

3) It regulates a wide range of private-sector activity, for safety, health, environmental and other purposes, including financial stability – or so one should hope.

4) It administers Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as well as other pension and health benefit programs.

On what grounds are any of these functions too large?

And you have to love his logic:

I do believe we would be better off ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan quickly, that we could dispense with the real resource costs of many foreign bases, aircraft carrier groups, fighter aircraft and submarines and nuclear weapons left over from the Cold War. But these are security judgments, not broad economic ones. In other words, I would not cut a single dime of Pentagon spending that was actually necessary to defend the United States, in order supposedly to lower the interest rate on federal debt.

By the same reasoning, why should we cut transportation, or public health, or environmental protection, or scientific research, or bank inspectors or funds that support the public schools? One can argue these matters program by program – and one should. (I would happily cut ethanol subsidies and oil company tax breaks, for starters.) But there is no economic case for placing an overall limit, and it is obvious that the 500,000 public sector workers – including many teachers, police, fire and park rangers and librarians – who have lost their jobs since 2009 were doing good and useful things that are now missed. If sacking them had been good for the economy, we would be having a stronger recovery than we are.

Finally there are Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Unlike the military or the transportation program, Social Security is not a government purchasing program. It therefore takes nothing directly from the private sector. What it does, is provide insurance: it protects workers from poverty in old age, whether or not their families would otherwise be willing and able to support them. And it taxes all workers, whether or not they would otherwise be burdened with elderly parents, or survivors, or the disabled, to support. Along with Medicare and Medicaid, Social Security is a powerful protector of the entire working population – young and old. It redistributes purchasing power, in loose relation to past earnings, in a way that meets the basic needs of a large number of Americans who would otherwise, in many millions of cases, be destitute or medically bankrupt.

What economic purpose would cutting such programs serve?

And he is none too happy with Obama:

Instead of this, what do we have, from a President who claims to be a member of the Democratic Party? First, there is the claim that we face a fiscal crisis, which is a big untruth. Second, a concession in principle that we should deal with that crisis by enacting massive cuts in public services on one hand and in vital social insurance programs on the other. This is an arbitrary cruelty. Third, a refusal to stand on the strong ground of the Constitution, against those whose open and declared purpose is tear that document and the public credit to shreds.

So, are Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and all the legitimate and necessary functions of government going to be cut? For millions of Americans that would be the catastrophe here.

Well, maybe the Republicans are just being fiscally conservative, but as Adam Serwer explains here, Republicans hardly seem that these days:

The GOP of today isn’t so much committed to not running a deficit as it is to cutting the social safety net, which is why the debt ceiling talks are stalling over tax increases. It’s a miracle of messaging that Republicans have managed to persuade reporters to continue referring to them as “fiscal conservatives,” since the label implies a level of responsibility that the GOP simply hasn’t shown. Republicans refuse to raise taxes at all despite the fact that rates are at historically low levels. …

Now, I’m not one to find the label “fiscal conservative” particularly impressive since I think there are times the government needs to run a deficit. But to the extent there’s someone operating with a “fiscal conservative” viewpoint in these negotiations, it’s the president. That’s much to the chagrin of liberals, who argue correctly that the last thing the country’s anemic recovery needs is more cuts to government spending. But if we are going to continue to use terms like “fiscal conservative,” we should be clearer about what they actually mean.

And Steve Benen agrees:

For good or ill, President Obama is taking fiscal conservatism very seriously right now. After the short-term Recovery Act, the White House has insisted every new initiative be fully paid for, and as of last week, it’s the president and his team who’ve even offered Republicans a massive debt-reduction plan – which, of course, the GOP has no interest in pursuing.

The sooner reporters stop pretending Republicans are the “fiscally conservative” ones, the better.

Yes, there are conservative icons more substantial than Goldwater and Reagan. Now there’s Obama. Conservatives – before the current madness – were the ones who said calm down and take it easy there, Sparky. Do what’s necessary. Don’t go all crazy. And it seems we do have one of those. And no one is happy with that now.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to The Unlikely Conservative

  1. Rick says:

    The real problem is not just all of us, even liberals, somehow thinking that calling someone a “fiscal conservative” is a compliment, it’s all of us refusing to think of calling someone a “conservative” as being an insult.

    “Conservatives” should be reviled in this country at least as much as “liberals” are now, simply because history shows that conservatives always eventually end up on the wrong side of every issue — they condoned slavery, then racism and anti-semitism, then sexism and homophobia, then were against protecting the environment, then opposed helping the poor and elderly and helpless and immigrants, and are now bent on reducing the size of our government so they can drown it in a bathtub.

    Boehner is well-intentioned? My ass! If he himself is not lying about intentionally trying to destroy the economy of the United States, he is at the very least enabling those who are.

    And that seems to be the plan, by the way. I’m pretty sure Boehner’s handlers will not tolerate any deal, because they want us to default, thereby hurting our credit rating so we can no longer borrow. It’s all part of “starve the beast” — no matter what you claim your intentions are, you have to reduce taxes and reduce spending and reduce the size of government, so it will not only stop taking away all our money, it will stop doing all those things that sap the energies of the country, by removing the incentive from all those dead-weight folks to go out and get a job. I’m pretty sure what the Tea Party wants to do is not what the majority of Americans want done, and the Tea Party is aware of this, but doesn’t care.

    What I find interesting is that nobody ever seems to point out that the original Tea Party of 1773 was a strike against Britain, while whatever the Tea Party of today does seems to be a strike against the United States.


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