In a Weekly Standard editorial about the inadequacies of President Obama’s budget proposal, Matthew Continetti also has some criticism for the House Republicans’ alternative:
It almost seems as if the GOP worked backward. Typically, the job of politics is to figure out what kind of society we would like to have, and then figure out a way to pay for it. But the House Republicans started by figuring out how much they were willing to pay–“the post-war average tax level of roughly 18.3 percent of gross domestic product”–and then determined what the government would have to look like to get there. Instead of deficits that bring you more health, energy, and education funding, the House GOP’s deficits bring you tax cuts for childless high-earners and corporations.
There’s something to all that. While the GOP alternative does — rightly, in my view — prioritize national defense and veteran’s health care over domestic spending items, its overall approach to domestic discretionary spending is to avoid priority-setting with a “freeze.” (I don’t think defense spending should be sacrosanct either, but I’ll leave that aside for a moment since it is at least a legitimate function of the federal government.) And given that it contains its own deficits and borrowing, the Republican budget is vulnerable to the political critique with which Continetti concludes his paragraph.
But the House Republicans don’t have it entirely backward: They are figuring out what kind of society they’d like to have — a society in which the wealth and decision-making power that the Democrats would give to the government instead remain in private hands. They are paying for it by attempting, however imperfectly, to control the growth of government. Obama’s kind of society resembles postwar Western Europe; the Republicans’ is intended to look more like postwar America.
That’s a large part of the debate in a nutshell: Do we want to become a European-style social democracy or not? Either way, how are we going to deal with spending commitments we’ve already made but can’t presently afford? Obama prefers to answer these questions in a way that will at some point have to be paid for through higher taxes. The Republicans are trying to answer them in a way that will at some point have to be “paid for” through reduced spending.
The problem is that Obama is doing a better job illustrating his vision than the Republicans are theirs, though they’re both relying on large deficits to obscure the politically unpopular implications of their respective plans. But we’re getting to the point where it is no longer sustainable to pay for Democratic spending with Republican tax rates plus bipartisan deficits.