Wednesday, June 29, 2011


❄ This post, and other ‘PLAIN TALK’ posts on this blog, describe in plain language the current Republican Party aims and methods, which I consider a perverse exercise in political design. ❄

It’s bizarre that the slogan ‘No New Taxes!’ became a standard declaration, and then the loyalty oath of the US Republican Party. Why bizarre? Because the purpose of government is to collect and organize society‘s resources to meet compelling needs that cannot be met, or cannot be met as well (promptly, efficiently, effectively, cheaply), by other institutions. In short, there is a perceived need for government, and if there is to be government then it must be funded.

Of course “No New Taxes!” arose precisely among agitators who were suspicious of government, and above all suspicious of large government. In California a referendum campaign (‘Prop 13’) mandated stern limits to annual increases in property taxes. Government was likened to a ‘beast’, leading to the slogan ‘Starve the Beast”.

Bruce Bartlett traces the idea of using tax cuts to starve government to an unlikely source: John Kenneth Galbraith. Learning of this unexpected contribution by Galbraith made me laugh, as he was once my teacher, and I had paid some attention to his views. Galbraith, as Reader must suspect, was warning of this possibility. In 1965 Galbraith told the Joint Economic Committee of Congress that:

“I was never as enthusiastic as many of my fellow economists over the tax reduction of last year. The case for it as an isolated action was undoubtedly good. But there was danger that conservatives, once introduced to the delights of tax reduction, would like it too much. Tax reduction would then become a substitute for increased outlays on urgent social needs. We would have a new and reactionary form of Keynesianism with which to contend.” [Note 1]

Bartlett finds the first use of the phrase ‘starve the beast’ in this sense in the 1980s.

Holding elected officials to a pledge of “No New Taxes!” has been championed most prominently by Grover Norquist, about whose campaign Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick (who was a student at Harvard with Norquist a quarter-century earlier) recently wrote that

“It is now clear that the Republican strategy is to drive America to the brink of fiscal ruin and then argue that the only way out is to cut spending for the powerless. Taxes—a dirty word thanks to Norquist’s “no new taxes” gimmick—are made to seem beyond the pale, even as the burden of paying for our society shifts disproportionately to the middle class and working poor. It is the height of fiscal folly. It is also not who we are as a country.” [Note 2]

Note that the Republican Party has no qualms about flagrant, unjustifiable spending of tax dollars, as the Iraq War (2003 - .. ) illustrates.

Can a complex modern society function if its government commits to ‘no new taxes’? Yes, but not well, and only for a time. Government performs useful functions the ‘private sector’ will not. In due course, unfunded, present functions will be reduced and new opportunities foregone.

The Question

How can the cry ‘No New Taxes!’ be discredited?


‘No New Taxes’ is a childish slogan because it treats all taxes as alike, without regard for their use. And is there any difference between ‘new’ taxes and those already in place? Why should taxes be collected at all if no new tax can be justified? Recall Washington’s passing enchantment with ‘zero base budgeting’.

Tax critics often argue that the ‘private sector’ is good—entrepreneurial, more productive, a better source of ‘job growth’ and economic growth in general, more efficient, and via markets responsive to the people’s choices—while the ‘public sector’ performs badly. Or, in other terms, that the ‘market’ bests ‘regulation’. Again, these categories say nothing about content and quality. There is no doubt that markets can serve an allocative role, allowing individual preferences to be aggregated and ensuring that performance models are tested in competition. Efficiencies may result. Novel utilities and means to achieve them may be encouraged. It is equally true that no market can function without regulation (which needn’t be supplied by government), and that governments can use quasi-markets to explore efficiencies and innovations.

I once proposed a simple solution to funding the Iraq War (2003 - .. ). Observing that the GW Bush White House had asked Bill Clinton and GHW Bush to join forces to raise monies for relief of tsunami victims in Indonesia, I imagined funding the Iraq War from voluntary contributions. Americans would show their deep commitment to the Iraq War, by their dimes and their dollars. Banks and businesses would be generous. Children, shown on TV breaking piggy banks, would give their pennies. In short order the war would be funded without any burden on the Treasury.

Design of Maneuver Masquerading as Policy

Why ‘Starve the Beast’? Of course for some the slogan invokes the metaphor GOVERNMENT IS THE DEVIL. [Note 3] But the Republican Party employs ‘No New Taxes!’ as a cudgel to force concessions from its political opponents. [Note 4] It can do this because of the concurrence of these conditions:
[1]    Republicans have a clear majority in the House of Representatives, and
[1a]   Congress cannot pass bills, including appropriations, without approval of the House.
[1b]   the Republican majority in the House has, with few exceptions, acted as a disciplined force.
[2]   Senate rules permits cloture only by a vote of three-fifths, enabling any minority of 41 or more to threaten filibuster;
[2a]   on almost all matters the Republican minority leadership in the Senate has been able to block action if it has chosen to do so;
[2b]   Congress cannot pass bills, including appropriations, without approval of the Senate.

What this means is that the Republican leadership can demand that terms be included in legislation as a condition of its being enacted, and can threaten to preclude approval of legislation if it funds functions to which the Republicans object. As a first approximation Republican members of the House and Senate are not free to vote in accordance with their judgment, if they disagree with the Leadership. I say ‘first approximation’ because the Party recognizes that preserving a Senate seat may require allowing a sitting member to vote ‘independently’ in order to burnish his badge for reelection ... and has a sufficiently large minority in the Senate to do so.

How ‘masquerade’? To clothe ‘No New Taxes!’ in the appearance of sound policy, the Party asserts that the national economy is in dire straits and that only rejection of the ‘tax and spend policies’ of its opposition can rescue the country. This is a larger question than we can disentangle here, but there are some certainties that the Republican Party assiduously avoids: first, that something more than 40% of the substantial national debt follows from the ‘Bush era tax cuts’ and the Bush-Cheney war of choice in Iraq; second, that the financial stability of Social Security could be readily achieved by a few steps (such as requiring a contribution of income exceeding the current ceiling); third, that Republican Party hostility to the Obama Administration’s medical care initiative perpetuates, and does not address, the medical cost problem; fourth, that there are substantial military savings that could be had if there were bipartisan readiness to enact them. And fifth—about which the economic consequences are highly uncertain but the scientific evidence firm—that anthropogenic climate change is a fact for which government readiness to take actions may require some readiness to spend.

Drafting Problem

Devise a systematic, evidenced comparison of tax-funded (government) and private (‘non-governmental’) approaches to a significant issue, such as health care, incarceration, global warming, transport systems, food safety assurance, or the custody of nuclear weapons.


[Note 1]:  Joint Economic Committee. 1965. January 1965 Economic Report of the President. 89th Cong., 1st sess. Washing- ton, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. P. 13. Cited in Bruce Bartlett, “ ‘Starve the Beast’: Origins and Development of a Budgetary Metaphor,” The Independent Review, v. XII, n. 1, Summer 2007, pp. 5–26.
[Note 2]:  Deval Patrick, “How Grover Norquist hypnotized the GOP,” The Washington Post, 30 June 2011. On Norquist’s pledge, see Americans for Tax Reform, “What is the Taxpayer Protection Pledge?”.
[Note 3]:  On similar uses of metaphor, see George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).
[Note 4]:  For an illustrative account of current arguments about spending and revenue, see “Anti-Tax Diehard Looms Large in Spending Showdown”, Associated Press, The New York Times, 3 July 2011.

[Political Design 2011.06.30. Revised, adding Derval Patrick quote and reference to Grover Norquist: 2011.07.03. Post A27. or]


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