Sunday, March 01, 2009

The anti-Reagan feeds the beast

In the Reagan years, some conservative wonks supported tax cuts not because they really believed in their stimulative effects, but because they wanted to "starve the beast" - that is, government. (See this typically biased Wikipedia citation for references.)

Government had grown too large and intrusive, and it was politically impossible to cut government programs. But tax cuts, and the ensuing revenue reductions, would force spending cuts by starving government of the revenues it needed to keep growing. With tax increases no less politically hazardous then spending cuts, growing deficits would eventually make it possible, if not necessary, to cut back the state. Tax cuts today would give rise to spending cuts tomorrow. (Or so they thought; reality was a bit different.)

I mention this because President Obama seems to have adopted the reverse theory.

He wants to "feed the beast" today, introducing an unprecedented parade of new government programs under the rubric of economic stimulus. But he knows he doesn't have the political support to pay for them with new taxes, and even if he did they couldn't be imposed during a looming recession. But over time, as the new programs develop entrenched constituencies and become politically impossible to cut, the enormous and growing deficits will create irresistible pressure to increase taxes to cover the gap. Spending on new programs today will give rise to new taxes tomorrow.

Or so he thinks. Reality has plenty of time for the final word.

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