Monday, July 26, 2010


A couple of days ago, Martin Wolf wrote an extremely gloomy post about Republican fiscal irresponsibility that was cited approvingly (and with a shared sense of dread) by Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong, and others.

Wolf argues that Republicans' favorite supply-side argument -- that tax cuts pay for themselves -- has had a tremendous political benefit for the party because it's meant that Republicans don't even have to try to make painful but fiscally responsible proposals, ever:

How did supply-side economics bring these benefits? First, it allowed conservatives to ignore deficits. They could argue that, whatever the impact of the tax cuts in the short run, they would bring the budget back into balance, in the longer run. Second, the theory gave an economic justification - the argument from incentives - for lowering taxes on politically important supporters. Finally, if deficits did not, in fact, disappear, conservatives could fall back on the "starve the beast" theory: deficits would create a fiscal crisis that would force the government to cut spending and even destroy the hated welfare state.

Even though it's obvious now that tax cuts don't pay for themselves (and even though Republicans don't make real budget cuts when they take power in Washington), the GOP still pursues this line of argument. And so the red ink just flows and flows. And electing Democrats doesn't help:

...since the Republicans have no interest in doing anything sensible, the Democrats will gain nothing from trying to do much either. That is the lesson Democrats have to draw from the Clinton era's successful frugality, which merely gave George W. Bush the opportunity to make massive (irresponsible and unsustainable) tax cuts. In practice, then, nothing will be done.

Wolf is right about what happens the next time Republicans are in power: no serious effort to cut deficits, more tax cuts.

But he's forgetting one thing: we're going to have more wars.

The other article of faith on the right -- the foreign policy equivalent of "tax cuts are always good" -- is "Democrats always fail to defend America because they're disloyal and weak." Never mind Obama's escalation in Afghanistan -- the next Republican president will tell us we've been fighting there "with one hand tied behind our back," or will tell us that we have to go to war with Iran, or maybe with Yemen.

Or maybe all of the above.

Oh, and all of this should be accompanied by tax cuts.

That's what Wolf overlooks: there's no telling how much red ink Republicans will generate just because, in the era of Bush presidencies and interregnums between Bush presidencies, being more bellicose than Democrats is as much a base-rallying tactic as being more willing to cut taxes. They aren't just going to do tax cuts and mostly let the spending go on as usual. They're going to do tax cuts and mostly let the domestic spending go on as usual while spending even more on the military. And they won't cut unnecessary weapons systems, because that what Democratic wussies would do.

So it's even worse than Martin Wolf thinks.

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