It’s one of the great ironies of modern American politics that it is so-called “conservatives” who have become the most ardent champions of what can only be described as hedonistic, live-for-today, instant gratification public policy.
Think about it. A half-century ago, conservativism in America was, first and foremost, about balancing the books. Old conservative political warhorses of both parties like Gerald Ford, Everett Dirksen, Sam Rayburn (or, here in North Carolina, former Senator Sam Ervin and longtime state Treasurer Harlan Boyles), were certainly skeptical of government spending and often battled liberals over the advent of new or expanded public programs. But, at the end of the day, what principally motivated these men was a desire to make revenues match public outlays.
In this traditionalist strain of conservatism, self-denial and sustained sacrifice for the common good were vital concepts regularly impressed not just upon those who touted public services, but upon taxpayers of means, as well.
Unfortunately, in the 21st Century, the traditionalist view has been pushed aside by the ultra-Right’s embrace of market fundamentalism and “supply side” economics, which preach that tax cuts – especially for people at the top (the so-called “investor class”) – are always a good idea. The result, of course, is the mess we find ourselves in today – a situation in which key public services and structures have been permitted to struggle and wither even as the wealthy enjoy repeated and massive new tax breaks.
The poster child for this phenomenon of course, is the ultimate self-obsessed “what’s in it for me right now?” hedonist, Donald Trump. Sadly, however, Trump seems to have an ever-expanding team of acolytes and enablers.
Take North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis, for example. This past weekend on the national TV show Meet the Press, host Chuck Todd pressed Tillis on the most recent federal tax cut and the latest proposal from Trump for still more. How, Todd demanded, could Tillis support yet another round of Trump tax cuts when “this current tax cut is clearly not paying for itself – the debt’s increasing, not decreasing, and there’s no sign it’s gonna’ decrease”?
Rather than acknowledging the obvious truth behind Todd’s question, Tillis actually defended Trump with DC-insider talk about “scoring for economic growth over time.” He then flogged, rather unartfully, the hoary and tired supply side line:
I think that there is a way to rationalize that this tax cut will pay for itself through sustained economic growth.”
“Rationalize” is, indeed, the appropriate verb, Senator.
But, of course, Tillis is far from the only prominent 21st century North Carolina conservative pushing shortsighted and fiscally irresponsible policies. Tillis’s former colleagues in the General Assembly are taking just such action with their proposed constitutional amendment to lower the maximum cap on the state income tax.
As Michael Leachman, Senior Director of State Fiscal Research at the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, explained in a recent post entitled “North Carolina Tax Cap Threatens Funding for Public Services,” there is little to distinguish the two proposals:
North Carolina is already on a path to serious fiscal instability…due to years of income tax cuts that have mainly benefited the wealthy and done little to boost the economy. While the ballot measure wouldn’t immediately change the state’s tax code, it would leave future policymakers in a bind. The income tax is North Carolina’s primary revenue source, so if they wanted to improve the state’s beleaguered school systems, help more people get medical care when they need it, or make other investments that residents and businesses demand, they might not be able to.
Further, with income taxes capped, policymakers would likelier pay for public investments by raising sales and property taxes, which fall harder on people with less income. If so, the state’s tax system would favor the wealthy even more. Like the vast majority of states, North Carolina’s tax system asks more of the poorest residents than of the wealthiest, as a share of income.”
Leachman goes on to explain that there’s also “no reason to believe” that the proposed tax cap will in any way support the cause of broad-based economic prosperity. Not only do reams of research point in the opposite direction, so too does the real world experience of states like Kansas.
In other words, there is precious little to distinguish the income tax cap proposal from the Trump-Tillis “let’s party today and the hell with tomorrow” approach to federal tax policy. Both mortgage the future for the benefit of the wealthy and in service of the discredited trickledown economics idea that we can simply grow our way to fiscal health.
Several decades ago, Senator Dirksen famously expressed his fear that the United States might “commit fiscal suicide on the installment plan.” Sadly, today, it seems that modern conservatives are determined to pursue such a course in an even shorter time frame.