- How to fix the national budget: more tax revenue (not necessarily raising tax rates);
- Civics education and various ideas for rewriting constitutions.
Apropos of this weekend’s events in Washington DC. In some cases there are smart solutions to our problems that even Democrats refuse to entertain. Because politics.
NY Times, Peter Coy (subscriber-only newsletter), 29 Sep 2023: There Is Only One Way to Fix the National Budget
For years now, Washington has seemed at a loss — adrift at sea — over how to cope with the nation’s deepening budget problems. Cutting entitlements significantly is off the table in both parties. Ditto for military spending. Reductions in other parts of the budget couldn’t possibly be big enough to do the trick. And just letting the deficits run is looking increasingly irresponsible.
There is really only one way out of this jam. Spoiler alert: It’s not reducing funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It’s also not increasing the economy’s growth rate. That’s a good goal, but as we can see, the red ink has poured out over the past year even though the economy has been at or near full employment.
The solution is more tax revenue.
Not raising tax rates. Well, not for everyone.
Namely, more effective collection of taxes from people and companies that aren’t paying what they owe, coupled with higher tax rates on corporations and individuals. And not just on the very rich. The financing problem is big enough that taxes will have to go up on a sizable chunk of people in the top half of the income distribution.
But of course, as is well-known, Republicans want to *cut* the budget for the IRS, to make it easier for the wealthy to cheat on their taxes without getting caught. They’re shameless about doing this. They frighten their supporters with threats of the IRS going after *you*, but if you’re not breaking the law by cheating on your taxes, why worry?
You don’t hear this from either Republicans or Democrats because calling for higher taxes is seen in Washington as politically fatal. As I said, it requires imagination. When you step back from the daily tit for tat, it’s hard to imagine any way to fix the nation’s finances in the long term that doesn’t involve more tax revenue. As Sherlock Holmes said, “When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
The writer makes another point, one that belies the simplistic conservative assumption that budget deficits are always bad. Economics is complex, and the nation’s budget is not like a family budget.
I have never been a deficit hawk. I think balanced budget amendments are silly. It’s smart to run big deficits when the economy is weak; the government’s spending makes up for the shortfall in private consumption and investment, minimizing the loss of jobs. It’s good to run small deficits even when the economy is healthy to offset contractionary forces elsewhere. If the growth rate of the economy exceeds the growth rate of the debt, the ratio of debt to gross domestic product will shrink, making the debt more and more manageable.
He goes on about the aging population and the threat that Social Security trust funds will run out in 2034 unless Something Is Done. And clarifies the common take on how Democrats and Republicans regard taxes.
The conventional wisdom is that Republicans like lower taxes and Democrats like higher taxes. That’s not quite right. “We have bipartisan agreement not to raise taxes on the bottom 98 percent of the population,” Strain told me. “One party” — the Democrats — “wants to raise taxes on the top 2 percent a little bit.”
I mentioned an item about civics a few posts ago — it was on Sept. 11th where I “dimly” recalled having a half-semester in high school about civics. Thinking about it since then, it might by been as early as 5th grade, where we learned just the basics. Elections, senators vs. representatives, and so on.
Salon, Chauncey DeVega, 26 Sep 2023: “How you lose your democracy”: Shocking new research shows Americans lack basic civic knowledge, subtitled “Do you know what the three branches of government are? Do you understand their roles? Many Americans do not.”
Again, Republicans are implicated.
Republicans are systematically eroding the basic civil rights of the American people. As we are seeing in other countries that are experiencing what experts describe as “democratic backsliding,” Republicans are doing this by undermining and corrupting America’s democratic institutions from within. If Republicans get their way, free speech, freedom of association, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, equal protection under the law, the right to privacy, the right to vote, and other basic freedoms and rights will be severely restricted.
In an example of Orwellian Newspeak, Republicans present themselves as defenders of freedom, when they actually oppose it. More specifically, Republicans believe that freedom is the ability and power of a select group of White Americans (rich, white, “Christian” men) to take away and otherwise deny the rights and liberties of other Americans and people in this country they deem to be less than, second-class, not “real Americans” and the Other, such as Black and brown people, the LGBTQI community, women, non-Christians, and other targeted groups.
Unfortunately, many Americans are unaware of their basic constitutional and other guaranteed rights and liberties – and how the country’s democratic institutions are ideally supposed to function. How can the American people defend and protect their democracy and rights, if they lack such basic knowledge?
Such an outcome is not a coincidence: it is the intentional outcome of how the American right-wing and conservative movements have undermined high-quality public education for decades with the goal of creating a compliant public that lacks the critical thinking skills and knowledge to be engaged citizens.
The piece goes on with details about a recent poll about what the public knows, and an interview with an author of a book on the subject.
What I think would be interesting would be to teach civics as a set of hypotheses about how government should work, given as how they were set up by men (all men) under the influence of Enlightenment values (and explicitly not inspired by any religion) some 235 years ago. And to *contrast* those hypotheses with those of other nations. For example, few if any other nations have a First Amendment, a right to free speech. –Actually, more than I thought, via quick Google search. Yet many do not. Why would that be? We hear of other nations that have tried to rewrite their constitutions; Chile comes to mind. Or ideas to rewrite the constitution, any constitution, every decade or even century. People learn, society learns, ideas we took for granted two or three centuries ago (especially about people who weren’t white males) have changed.
Of course there would be those who would resist this: Google “rewrite constitution” and you see links about right-wingers who want to rewrite the constitution to preserve their own advantage. Not because of anything that’s changed in the past 250 years, say, about slavery. There are always people who believe that the ancients — whether those who wrote the Bible, or those who wrote the American Constitution — were wiser than anyone living today, and whose conclusions must be deferred to. Despite the obvious evidence over the past couple centuries of how life has changed and improved for the better through science and technology, and not through deference to any kind of ancient wisdom.
That Google search turned up this, from The Atlantic in 2020, by Jeffrey Rosen: What If We Wrote the Constitution Today?, subtitled “Proposals from libertarian, conservative, and progressive scholars displayed a few striking differences—but also some profound similarities.”