Fun with Froma
Longtime readers know that I’ve never been much of a Froma Harrop fan. People who know her assure me that she’s reasonable, but she starts from (what one might call) the flawed premises of the ruling class. Still, when she focused on Rhode Island, at least she articulated a distinct perspective on matters of local concern; now that she’s syndicated, she seems in direct competition with other national liberal pundits who are frustrating to read.
Every now and then, though, it’s fun to dip into a column and spot the aforementioned premises, as is the case with last month’s “The GOP’s Third World vision for the United States“:
Government programs are sustainable only if you sustain them. That’s done primarily through taxes. Years of tax-cutting have helped drive federal tax revenues to a 60-year bottom relative to the gross domestic product.
Of course, as an economy grows — considering that few government programs necessarily scale directly with the prosperity of the nation (indeed, many should go in the opposite direction) — one would expect government to shrink on a relative basis. If we a priori set government as a proportion of the economy, then we’ll ever be looking for programs on which to spend the unneeded money, which actually jibes pretty well with political trends of the past half century.
The interesting point, though, is that one could construct an explanation for that “60-year bottom” so as to credit tax cuts with economic growth. Harrop goes on, and I can’t help but interject, here and there:
If low taxes are the key to economic growth, as Republicans assert, then why aren’t we doing better? [Because taxes at all levels of government are still too high, because regulations stifle the economy as well as taxes, and because the economy is cyclical without regard to the government.] What explains the phenomenal growth of the 1950s, when the top marginal rate hit 91 percent? [The Baby Boom and the release of pent up demand and production capacity after World War II.] Or the years following the Democrats’ 1993 tax hike on high incomes, when the economy boomed, the budget ran a surplus and the rich did better than ever? [Conditions formed in the ’80s and the development of new technologies, notably the Internet.] And what explains the mediocre job growth in 2001-2008, as two big tax cuts went into effect? [The dot-com bust and the shift of capital toward investment in speculative real estate, rather than productive enterprise, as a result of government policies making such speculation seem unreasonably safe.] Then came the crash, fueled by deregulation. [And Harropian liberals credit Obama’s stimulus for preventing worse, even as they fail to mention the same possibility when it comes to Bush’s tax cuts.]
Of course, my rejoinders are arguably as simplistic as Harrop’s assertions, but I’m writing as a hobby on a blog, while she’s making a healthy living as a professional opinionista. More importantly, her baseline philosophy initiates an error that affects all that she piles upon it:
Public benefits are what divide a rich-country way of life from the threadbare alternative. Let’s assume that Americans want the blessings of the former.
To the extent that such a statement is true, it’s circumstantial. The European model is pretty much the only “rich-country way of life” by which Americans can measure themselves, and just because Europe does things a certain way doesn’t mean that the Continent is providing an objective example of what civilization ought to be.
Acknowledging that leads to the question of what the objective of a civic system ought to be, at which one must consider the longevity with which that “rich-country way of life” can be sustained. On that count, I’d suggest that we’d be much better off pursuing an alternative method of distributing our national prosperity that doesn’t measure success by the amount of public benefits (either relative to the economy or in absolute terms), but in the well-being of the individuals who make up the citizenry.