A funny thing happened on the way to the White House in 1981.
Ronald Reagan had been talking throughout the previous year’s campaign about taking a meat-axe to federal taxes (and therefore, also, revenue, but that part somehow never got mentioned), about massively increasing military spending, and about balancing the budget. And doing all at once, no less.
Even a Republican could figure out – if they allowed themselves to – that the numbers couldn’t possibly add up. Indeed, no less a Goppy than Poppy (one George Herbert Walker Bush) referred to this preposterous suite of promises as "voodoo economics". Er, he did that is, during the primaries, when he was competing with Reagan for the nomination. Once he had lost and was hungering for the newly nice and oh-so wise Saint Ron to offer him the vice-presidency, he all of a sudden became strangely silent on the topic, reminding the rest of us once again what is mankind’s second-oldest profession – a gig very much not unlike the first.
The mystery of how Reagan could possibly do all of these things was finally solved when the administration proposed its first budget and he absolutely didn’t. It couldn’t, of course, and not only did Reagan fail to balance the federal budget as promised, he actually went on to quadruple the national debt, choosing instead to avidly pursue the two more important remaining goals of his troika, tax-slashing and military spending.
Many people wondered at the time how the Republican Party could sustain this debt-crazed apostasy (not to mention hypocrisy), particularly after so many years of hammering the Democrats as "tax-and-spend liberals". (Oh, and by-the-way Item Number One: The numbers involved would pale against those of today’s borrow-spend-and-giveaway Republicans.) (Oh, and by-the-way Item Number Two: Nevertheless, in an attempt to demonstrate that there truly is absolutely no bottom whatsoever to the well of GOP hypocrisy, this week we have Righteous George, Protector of the Purse, vetoing S-CHIP legislation and replaying the party’s tired old and now jaw-droppingly absurd tune as he claims that the Democratic Congress is being profligate with the public’s tax dollars. No-bid billions for the Blackwater black-hole? Absolutely. Money for sick kids? Irresponsible!)
When Reagan first went down this path it was so weird that a conspiracy theory of sorts arose. The notion was that Republicans knew they could not possibly go through the front door to successfully kill popular programs like Social Security and Medicare, even if they were willing to risk political suicide to do so. So Reagan’s agenda was a back-door approach, instead. Driving up the debt to completely unsustainable levels, the story went, America would be faced with a series of uncomfortable choices as collectors came demanding their payments. The country could either raise taxes, cut military spending, or slash social programs. The idea was that, of the three, the last of these would seem to the public like the least worst choice. And then conservatives could surreptitiously achieve a long-held goal, best expressed by Grover Norquist, right-wing tax crusader extraordinaire: "I don't want to abolish government, I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub." By "government", of course, he means the parts that help people, not the parts that kill people. For the right, those parts are okay. If not beloved.
Perhaps this conspiracy was real all along. Boy Bush has made Reagan look like Leona Helmsley’s accounts-payable supervisor by comparison when it came to deficit spending, managing to borrow more than all other American presidents (that’s 42 of them, if you’re keeping score here), combined. Ouch. That’s a lot of cash, dude. Indeed, about nine trillion bucks or so now on the national credit card, and rapidly rising. Plus, of course, interest. Trust me, you don’t want to be handed the bill for this party of the millennium, and neither do your children ("Excuse me, you did what to us?").
But even if the alleged conspiracy was actually real, it seems likely to have been a bad bet all along. That is, I don’t think it’s a given that, presented with these three options, Americans would necessarily acquiesce to the destruction of the country’s social safety net, especially the massive cohort of Baby Boomers who are just now approaching the age where their hands are going to be extended outward, palm up. I think that given such a stark choice, something miraculous might occur. Americans might choose to finally give up their empire instead, just as the British did when they could no longer afford to pay for both guns and butter after the two world wars. This conservative plan, if it was ever real, could backfire quite nicely into forcing the country to think seriously about excessive military spending for the first time since World War II, and then perhaps to, in the words of Colin Powell, "cut it off, and then ... kill it".
To see what I mean, let’s pull Joe Six-Pack – or preferably, the Baby Boomer version of Joe Six-Pack (Joe Dime-Bag?) – off the street and ask him some basic questions about his priorities for American government:
Joe, which would you prefer, to receive your Social Security payments, or to bring democracy to the Middle East (even assuming it could be done by American military force, which it quite clearly cannot)?
Which would you prefer, Joe, to fully fund Medicare, or to protect the ability of American corporations to pillage third world countries unhampered by inconveniences like, say, the governments of those countries?
Which would you prefer, education for your children and grandchildren, or continued tax breaks for Americans who are already fabulously wealthy?
Which would you prefer, national infrastructure that isn’t crumbling, or corporate welfare programs for well-connected defense industry firms?
These may seem like tongue-in-cheek pokes at America’s national priorities, but they will actually become very real choices in the near future, especially if there is a progressive party or other force in America able to articulate the obvious options, and provided the the word can get out. Given the performance of the Democratic Party and the media of late, these are far from foregone conclusions. (Heck, I’m far from even being convinced that Bush and Cheney will actually leave office on January 20, 2009. Watch for them to pull a Putin.) But apart from those major caveats, these questions will rapidly become all too real.
When the bill for the fiscal blow-out comes due, hard choices are going to have to be made. Americans are not big on taxes, but they don’t support the idea of the rich getting a free ride. That hard choice is likely to be an easy choice.
Americans will never accept a weak defense apparatus that leaves the country vulnerable to attack. But beyond that, they may well finally be open to some thoughtful discussion about what is needed to achieve that end – and where the rest of the money is going – especially if such a dialogue is prompted by the requirements imposed by an encroaching reality, forcing decisions like the ones posited above.