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Putting Your Mouth Where Your Money Is

September 25, 2009

money“It’s easy being green,” declares Paul Krugman in this morning’s New York Times column. Contrary to the myths served up by cap-and-trade opponents, reducing emissions turns out to be relatively affordable. Citing a CBO study, Krugman claims that the bill would cost the average family only $160 a year in 2020 or “roughly the cost of a postage stamp a day.” While the cost would rise after that, so will G.D.P, rendering the net cost minimal.

Three cheers. Still, a stronger case can, and indeed should, be made for reform (Krugman would agree). If global warming is a serious threat to our planet – as scientific evidence overwhelmingly suggests that it is – we must act decisively and soon whatever the cost. Similarly, if we believe that access to decent health care is a basic human right, and not a luxury for those who can afford it, then we will need to find a way to pay for it.

For all their worrying about deficits, Republicans operate under the same set of assumptions about government spending. Believing as they did that Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat to national security, Republicans launched the Iraq War, the price tag of which has now exceeded $860 billion. A strong faith in free markets likewise resulted in the Bush tax cuts of 1.7 trillion, most of it going to the wealthiest members of society. These measures may have been right or wrong, but they certainly were costly.

So both parties have clearly demonstrated a willingness to spend taxpayer money. (It is worth mentioning the Democrats actually have a better track record of budget balancing than Republicans.) The difference is between one set of values and another: concerns over spending are, largely, a rhetorical fiction.

Now, it is obviously the case that many within the electorate do believe that all government spending is created equally bad. The Townhall and Tea Party revolts were not entirely a cynical ploy on the part of FoxNews and Freedomworks, as some left-wing commentators have suggested. For years, the Republican Party has tailored its message to these fiscal libertarians, while at the same time ignoring them in practice — at least when it has been politically convenient to do so. It is time for Republicans to either consistently embrace libertarian principles — which, in the past, would have meant opposing the bailouts and refraining from unnecessary wars — or come clean on government spending. Fat chance, I suppose.

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