Harrisburg is a city famous for two things: it’s not the one chocolate comes from, and now it’s the one steel doesn’t come from, either. The 50,000-person capital of Pennsylvania used to be a center of making stuff, but it has since drifted into the vague purposelessness of post-industrial America. Harrisburg is one of many medium-sized American towns with no particular reason to exist: too small to be an urban center, too big to be quaint/farmy, it is a city because a bunch of people live there. It is also in fiscal crisis. Back in 2003, Harrisburg borrowed $125 million to repair a garbage incinerator. That project was delayed, but the city spent the money anyway, only to borrow millions more later because, oh shit, the garbage incinerator. Now the government of Harrisburg has $310 million in guaranteed debt, and a state-appointed panel has determined that it needs to cover that by selling its city parking system. Also their garbage incinerator, which is a real kick in the pants.
It’s moving day here at the Combat! blog offices, where certain dismayingly materialistic acquisitions (real mattress) have led us to A) complain that this was much easier last time, when literally everything we owned fit into the bed of a Ford Ranger and B) assume that the economy has recovered. Things must be going well when even people who don’t want stuff have stuff, right? Of course it turns out that things are not so sunny. The US economic metaphor has been upgraded from crash to lingering illness, and while total work hours, productivity and corporate profits are all up, unemployment and the housing market—the two segments of the economy that most pertain to actual people and not Excel files—continue to suck it for coke money. And yet, the hot issue in politics is deficit spending. As the New York Times points out, the international mania for curbing government spending and balancing budgets—which has thus far dominated the G-20 summit, to say nothing of discourse at home—has the potential to trigger another Roosevelt Recession. What the fudge is that, you ask? Looks like someone’s going to have to click on the jump.
Hey, remember the estate tax? That bogeyman of the Bush years—the injustice enshrined in the federal tax code that robs hard-working Americans of their right to establish multi-generational dynasties as the Founders intended? The death tax? It’s possible you’ve forgotten it because it only applies to estates valued above $3.5 million dollars, and like most Americans you only stand to inherit, like, $3.2 mil. Then again, maybe you forgot it because it doesn’t apply this year.
The Congressional Budget Office released its preliminary assessment (caution: boring) of the House health care reform bill this morning, and the news is good: if all goes as planned, the Reconciliation Act to HR 4872 and HR 3590 will reduce the deficit by $130 billion in its first ten years. Notice that I say, “the news is good,” and not “the news is good for Democrats.” Finding out that a plan to improve the general welfare might actually save us a bunch of money is nice; if you like the idea of poor kids having medicine but don’t like the idea of the United States becoming a wholly-owned subsidiary of China, the CBO report should be a load off your mind. Of course, if you’re some sort of professional demagogue whose opposition to health care reform has been based on the supposedly enormous tax burden it will place on your audience, it puts you in a tough position. Theoretically, you should change your mind—deficits bad: health care bad, so now deficit reduction good: health care good—but that would feel uncomfortably similar to being wrong. No, when your position suddenly stops lining up with the facts, your only option is to change the facts.
The polite, well-dressed fellows at everyone’s favourite magazine, The Economist, have published a fairly terrifying article about the growth of government spending relative to GDPs. The beauty of reading a magazine written in another country—aside from how classy it looks in your browser history next to icanhascheezburger.com—is that when they say “government spending” they don’t just mean our government. It turns out that France, Germany, and especially the UK have indulged in massive spending sprees over the last few years, just like us. The governments of France and Britain are both spending over 50% of GDP, and the United States recently broke forty, prompting The Economist to declare, after clearing its throat and grimacing at the sound of its own voice, a new era of big government. That’s interesting and all, but the general movement toward Keynesian soft socialism is a trend of which we were already aware. What’s surprising is exactly when the United States started catching up to its European brethren.* Under George W. Bush, federal spending leapt from around 20% of GDP to 38%. Since 1992, the difference in spending-as-percentage-of-GDP between the US and Canada has decreased from fifteen points to a mere two, and we were damn near neck and neck the day Bush left office. Which is funny, because I don’t remember semiliterate mobs protesting the growth of government until roughly January 20, 2009. Perhaps that’s because of the steep jump in spending that occurred in 2008. Or maybe it’s because, like “family values,” “fiscally responsible” has become a trademarked slogan of the Republican Party, a truism that obtains only as much as we believe in it.