Monday, September 04, 2006

Choice: "Tax & Spend" or "Borrow & Spend"?

Following my "It's Getting Harder to Be a Democrat," September 1, 2006, Bill Maron has entered a comment that includes the following: "I don't want my taxes to go up which is what will happen if the Democrats get control of Congress. That's the only thing they seem clear on doing."

Normally, I respond to comments with comments. But what I'm about to say is sufficiently long, and related to a new subject, that it's worth a new blog entry.

For some years now I've been trying to avoid engaging in overly simplistic and partisan (i.e., "Democrats good," "Republicans bad") discussions, whether in blogs or casual conversation. It's kind of boring, and I haven't seen a lot of constructive progress come from such banter (and often shouting on TV). My friends are all over the spectrum politically; and for many -- even those with whom I've held some public policy discussions -- I haven't a clue as to how they vote.

In fact, that was a part of what I was trying to communicate with my "It's Getting Harder to Be a Democrat" entry.
"Tax Increases"

Although "tax policy" can have its own charm as a public policy discussion topic, I've never found political rhetoric about "taxes" very useful.

It's possible to make arguments as to why all government should be abolished; no public highways, defense weaponry, prisons, schools, parks and public lands, libraries, and so forth.

But not many people hold that view.

Once one recognizes that some tax-supported government functions are kind of useful (if not essential) then the discussion immediately shifts from "taxes" to (a) alternative "program" options, and (b) efficiency and effectiveness in their operation.

Hopefully, the same analysis would be applied to the private sector. In other words, I kind of like energy, but I wasn't particularly enthusiastic about the way Enron went about it. I like having prescription drugs when the doctor prescribes them, but I'd prefer the lower prices that would result from the elimination of the "research" costs associated with "cosmetic" changes and the advertising and marketing exprenses of TV advertising focused on the ultimate consumer (who cannot buy the product without a prescription).

Similarly, I like the idea of a Defense Department, but if there are retired admirals and generals who believe we could have more effective national security if the right cuts were made of up to 1/3 of current defense spending (as at least there used to be), I'd like to see their suggestions further investigated.

Much of what I and others blog about involves what is sometimes called "corporate welfare." Do I want to see even more of the taxpayers' money handed over to wealthy owners of businesses? No. But it's not that "I don't want my taxes increased," it's that I don't want those programs expanded -- because they're not effective, and economic development can be done more efficiently in a variety of other ways.

Actually, if I could be convinced that by spending twice as much on rational "economic development" programs we could get ten times the results -- that would benefit all Iowans -- I might be persuaded to support an increase in the expenditure -- and my taxes.

There's apparently some evidence that the costs of early childhood health care, day care and education can more properly be thought of as an "investment" than an "expense" -- because of the significant multiplier those programs provide in future cost avoidance.

As a school board member I once proposed a take-off on "Sim City" and similar programs that I called "Sim School District." It would be little more complicated that a "what-if" spreadsheet of school district costs and outputs. Stakeholders who wanted higher salaries, or smaller class sizes, would be able to see the relationship between programs and costs (with a public program for which total expenditures are relatively fixed.)

That's a bit of an introduction as to why I don't find talk of "cutting taxes" (or "tax increases") very useful when engaged in separate and apart from a discussion of the programs that will be reduced/eliminated (or expanded/created).

"Tax and Spend" or "Borrow and Spend"?

(a) Talk about programs aside, I believe we have some very serious financial problems in this country involving federal budgets out of balance, rapidly rising national debt (funded by foreign countries), and an out-of-control imbalance of trade. So, yes, I wish both parties' leadership would get the spending under control. (That's also a theme of many of these blog entries.)

(b) I don't see members of either party willing to give up their opportunities to bring home the pork to their states/districts.

So I don't see this as a partisan issue ("Democrats bad," "Republicans good"). As I think back I can't recall any Iowa Democratic U.S. Senator ever providing as much as $50 million for any project that has brought Iowans as much ridicule as has Senator Grassley's indoor rain forest.

(That's not to say Democrats wouldn't do it if they could; it's just to say, I don't think "it's all the Democrats fault.")

(c) I don't have the precise figures before me, but I believe that Presidents Reagan and Bush the Elder ran up a larger national debt than all prior presidents combined. And that President Clinton made significant strides in reducing budget deficits and national debt. And that President Bush II has, once again, run up additional, really staggering, multi-trillion-dollar debt.

Again, I'm not saying the Democrats are paragons of fiscal virtue; I'm just saying I don't think all blame can be laid at their feet.

We -- who are now practicing "negative savings" -- are living off of the savings of the Chinese, Japanese and others willing to invest in U.S. government bonds and the U.S. stock markets.

(d) Either we go the way of the less fortunate third world countries, and suffer with rampant inflation (or national bankruptcy) or some Americans, some day, are going to have to have their "taxes go up" to pay off that debt. Let's simply hope that the country ends up choosing that option over inflation or bankruptcy.

It is in that sense that it is President George W. Bush and the Republican Congress that is raising taxes -- even if not yours. He's raising the taxes of my grandchildren and greatgrandchildren.

I don't like it that President Bush is raising taxes in this way; but since he is, I'd rather he raise my taxes -- for a variety of reasons, including the fact that it will save billions in debt servicing/interest -- than to spend the money on myself and leave the debt burden to the generations to come.

(e) Given the choice between "tax and spend" Democrats and "borrow and spend" Republicans, I'll take the "tax and spend" Democrats any day -- while working politically to elect public officials who will bring rational analysis to government programs, and efficient administration to the management of those programs paid for with my tax dollars.

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