Idealism Wanted (Technocrats Need Not Apply)
Perhaps I am at heart a conservative: lately, I’ve been longing for the good old days of high idealism. Give me the socialism of a George Bernard Shaw, the Catholicism of a GK Chesterton, or the spiritualism of a Madame Blavatsky — just spare me today’s technocratic debates about budgets and deficits.
In previous generations, someone making the case that “Overtaxing the rich isn’t the answer” — as does Ruth Marcus in today’s Washington Post column — might have defended that thesis on the grounds that doing so would postpone the arrival of the ubermench or disrupt the survival of the fittest or something like that. Such appeals to philosophers like Nietzsche or Darwin were often misguided, yes, but Edwardian social commentary did generally have the virtue of making explicit its philosophical underpinnings and aims.
Nearly all of today’s commentators, by contrast, dress up values-laden positions in the guise of technocracy. Take Ruth Marcus. Contra the assertion of AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka that the US’s financial problems have to do with revenue and not entitlements, Marcus writes:
I’m all for a more progressive tax code. But consider: The Tax Policy Center examined what it would take to avoid raising taxes on families earning less than $250,000 a year while reducing the deficit to 3 percent of the economy by decade’s end. The top two rates would have to rise to 72.4 and 76.8 percent, more than double the current level. You don’t have to be anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist to think this would be insane.
Though Marcus does not explain why a tax rate on the wealthy exceeding 70 percent would be “insane,” we can assume that the typical right-wing arguments — that such rates would cripple economic growth and trample upon individual liberty — would apply. Though the former argument may have merit, it is by no means self-evident that higher taxes always and everywhere inhibit growth: in fact, tax rates on the highest income bracket exceeded 70% throughout the economic boom years of 1948-1973, peaking at an astonishing 92% in 1952 and 1953. The latter argument looks philosophical, but is in reality a mere slogan — which is what conservatives and liberals alike resort to when the technocratic arguments wear thin.
In a later paragraph, Marcus uses a one-liner about Greece to make the case for raising the age for Social Security eligibility:
Or ask Trumka about whether the eligibility age for Social Security, now 62 for partial benefits, should be raised. This former coal miner — and son and grandson of coal miners — erupts. His father worked 44 years in the mines, suffering from black lung, “and if you had said to my dad, ‘You have to work until you’re 63,’ that would have been a death sentence.” Fair enough. Some people may need special protection.
But, an editor asks, gesturing around the gleaming conference table at the middle-aged assembly, what about those who do not work in such punishing occupations and for whom the current system would provide two, maybe three, decades of benefits? “What’s wrong with that?” Trumka asks indignantly. “The rest of the world does that!” Yes, and how are things going in Greece?
Never mind that Trumka’s father has black lung; what matters to Marcus is the deficit. Yet again, however, the evidence is inconclusive — at least, apart from broader philosophical considerations. Yes, austerity measures might reduce the deficit. (Krugman insists that we’re not Greece and suspects that cutting unemployment benefits might actually be counterproductive.) But, then again, according to CBO, so will the Affordable Care Act and the American Power Act reduce the deficit by $140 billion and $19 billion, respectively. And then there is the $7 trillion we could have saved on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts.
But I digress. The point is not that liberals would do a better job of reducing deficits than conservatives (though I think they would). The point is that there are any number of ways to reduce deficits, depending upon one’s political philosophy — which must amount to more than crude slogans about liberty and equality if it is to be meaningful.