One of my particular favorite terrified theories about the Republican party is Starve the Beast, the fiscal/political strategy developed by small-government thinkers in the late 1970s. Depending on whom you ask, Starve the Beast is either a widely accepted conservative tactic or a paranoid fantasy of the left, although if the last couple of years have taught us anything, it’s that those two categories can overlap. The idea behind S the B is simple: cutting social welfare and other spending programs is not popular, but cutting taxes is. Ergo, the best way to reduce the size of the federal government is to steadily reduce taxes, until the political pressure created by mounting deficits forces cuts in spending. It sounds kind of evil and crazy when I put it that way, as if the GOP were deliberately bankrupting the federal government in order to get the budget cuts it couldn’t secure by democratic means. Maybe it would be better to let someone more respected explain it, like 1978 Alan Greenspan:
Let us remember that the basic purpose of any tax cut program in today’s environment is to reduce the momentum of expenditure growth by restraining the amount of revenue available and trust that there is a political limit to deficit spending.
Oh, wait. That sounds evil and crazy, too.
The problem with Starve the Beast is that it appeals to exactly the sort of flaw in popular thinking that a little-r republican system of government is supposed to address. Everyone* pretty much always thinks a tax cut is a good idea. The benefit of cutting taxes is concrete and immediate, whereas the cost—in the form of deficits and, ultimately, reduced social services—is invariably vague and distant. It’s the same cognitive fallacy that makes it hard to quit smoking, and it’s the sort of limitation in the hoi polloi’s ability to weigh its own interests that the Founders addressed by only extending the vote to farmers and textile magnates. Eventually that rule was relaxed, but the basic principle of American government—that actual federal operation be left to a group of mean old people who translate popular desires into long-term thinking—remains.
Like a marriage, that system works as long as neither party enlists the children to win arguments. Case in point: wealthy turtle Mitch McConnell has demanded a balanced budget amendment as part of ongoing congressional negotiations to raise the debt ceiling. The amendment would force the US government to spend no more than it takes in each year, and cap total federal spending at 18% of GDP. Now is a good time to note that this legislation has no hope of passing, in large part because it is retarded. As the Times editorial board instructively points out, a BBA would be the equivalent of a family refusing to take out a mortgage or get a car loan. Congresspeople know that taking on debt is an almost necessary function of government, yet a balanced budget amendment is a perennial “common-sense solution” to the national debt. In other words, it wouldn’t work, but it’s really easy to understand.
Lest you think I am painting McConnell as more cynical than he actually is, I should note that along with his balanced budget amendment, he remains adamantly opposed to raising taxes, possibly ever. “Until the president comes off his desire to raise hundreds of billions in tax hikes there’s nothing to negotiate,” one of his aides told The Hill. “No meetings are planned.” The combination of not raising taxes and not borrowing money—to say nothing of enshrining the refusal to do either in party policy and the frigging Constitution, respectively—suggest that the GOP is less interested in addressing the debt than in cutting spending by any means necessary. Demanding a balanced budget while rejecting any plan to increase revenue isn’t better government; it’s just less government. The beast is starved.
Of course, none of this will actually happen. The balanced budget amendment, if it ever reaches the Senate floor, will not even approach passage. Democrats and Republicans will “compromise” by agreeing to increase the debt limit without raising taxes, and the beast—having almost gotten really hungry—will be given a bag of cheeseburgers at the last minute. Then it will shit all over the living room carpet and, to our horrified discovery six months later, in the fireplace, and everyone will agree that it is a terrible problem. If only someone had the will to feed the beast twice a day and walk it when it got too fat, rather than locking it in the basement for a week and then letting it out again. But it keeps looking at us with those puppy-dog eyes.