Monday, September 27, 2010

The Morning After

Republicans hate government, they say. Conservative Grover Norquist famously said he wanted to shrink government so small it could be drowned in a bathtub.

The Tea Party wants to slash federal taxes and government programs--Department of Education, the FDA, and other "useless" agencies. They profess to believe that the only function of government is national defense.
Imagine the Tea Party taking power. Does anybody wonder what would happen the morning after? The recent Republican "Pledge to America" gave some hint of what they'd like to see: other than the military budget, Social Security, and Medicare, they advocate sharp cuts in every other area of government spending. But as Paul Krugman points out in "Downhill with the GOP," there is actually very little money in those discretionary areas:

So what’s left? Howard Gleckman of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center has done the math. As he points out, the only way to balance the budget by 2020, while simultaneously (a) making the Bush tax cuts permanent and (b) protecting all the programs Republicans say they won’t cut, is to completely abolish the rest of the federal government: “No more national parks, no more Small Business Administration loans, no more export subsidies, no more N.I.H. No more Medicaid (one-third of its budget pays for long-term care for our parents and others with disabilities). No more child health or child nutrition programs. No more highway construction. No more homeland security. Oh, and no more Congress.”

When liberals get angry at the GOP for being so obstructionist in Congress, I think, "but that's because they don't think Congress should do anything. They think government is the problem, not the solution so they don't want to pass legislation to deal with the nation's problems."

The only problem with this is that when they are in power, they really don't act on their supposed convictions. In the first half of this decade when the GOP had the presidency and both houses of Congress did they really try and pull back the scope of the federal government? No of course they didn't. They deregulated some things, but federal spending increased, and the GOP sponsored a huge expansion of Medicare without ensuring that it be funded.

In other words, they mean their fiscal promises just as much as they mean their morality promises (e.g. banning abortion)--in other words not at all. It's just empty rhetoric.

What they want is power. They don't care about governing, they just want to hold power by being in government.

The Democrats aren't much better. They also want power, but they do seem to have some interest in creating policies to improve life for the average American. There's an interesting graph accompanying the excellent article about income inequality in the U.S. in Slate, by Timothy Noah, "The Great Divergence." The graph is entitled "Income Growth Rates 1948-2005" and it compares the increase in income for the five income quintiles (top 20%, next 20%, etc.) for presidents of the two political parties. Under Democratic administrations, the income gains are almost equal across all quintiles, with a slightly higher rate for the poorest, but under Republican presidents the increase in badly skewed towards, you guessed it, the rich, while the porr gain almost nothing. The accompanying text reads:

Did the United States grow more unequal while Republicans were in power? It sounds crude, but Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels has gone a long way toward proving it. Bartels looked up income growth rates for families at various income percentiles for the years 1948 to 2005, then cross-checked these with whether the president was a Republican or a Democrat. He found two distinct and opposite trends. Under Democrats, the biggest income gains were for people in the bottom 20th income percentile (2.6 percent). The income gains grew progressively smaller further up the income scale (2.5 percent for the 40th and 60th percentiles, 2.4 percent for the 80th percentile, and so on). But under Republicans, the biggest income gains were for people in the 95th percentile (1.9 percent). The income gains grew progressively smaller further down the income scale (1.4 percent for the 80th percentile, 1.1 for the 60th percentile, etc.).

Two other observations are worth making:

1) In all income categories except the 95th percentile, income growth rates under Democratic presidents exceeded income growth rates under Republican ones. That suggests greater income equality can coexist with (or even help create) greater prosperity.

2) The 95th percentile fared about the same under Democrats and Republicans. (This chart shows it doing slightly better under Democrats, but the margin of error erases the Democrats' advantage.) Bartels' party-based interpretation of income inequality can't address the Great Divergence, Part 2—the stratospheric rise in incomes at the very top—because for this group, it doesn't matter much whether a Democrat or a Republican inhabits the White House. Political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, of Yale and Berkeley, respectively, argue that the apparently nonpartisan solicitude Democrats and Republicans express toward the rich is the result of a massive increase in Washington's corporate lobbying sector since the 1970s—and that the growing power of big business in Washington has been a major contributor to the Great Divergence.

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