July 20, 2011

It’s one thing for a political party to lose its moral bearings – after all, community values evolve, and large swaths of people and their elected representatives can end up on the wrong side of history on such questions as slavery, suffrage, and civil rights. But when a party loses its mathematical bearings – well, that’s a little shocking.

Yet that’s what’s happened to the Republican Party. The debt ceiling endgame has exposed the denial gripping the GOP in the face of the inevitable loss of “lower taxes” as the core of the party’s identity. You can feel the Republicans’ pain; tax cuts have been the party’s defining issue since Ronald Reagan rode them to power in 1980. But in an aging America, the numbers no longer work, and Republicans have failed to develop a new conservative vision to replace their fading mantra.

The “cap, cut and balance” plan passed by the House Tuesday night captures Republican denial perfectly. The plan would cap federal spending at 19.9 percent of GDP by 2018, with the goal of lowering it to18 percent over time. Similar caps have been endorsed by most of the GOP’s presidential candidates.

You’d never know from listening to Republicans that these goals are mathematically and politically unattainable.

But they are. Why? If there’s one fact you need to emblazon in your mind to make sense of the current debate, it is that Ronald Reagan ran the federal government at 22 percent of GDP back when our population was much younger. (Under President Obama, the extraordinary measures enacted to fight the recession – plus a collapse in the denominator, GDP -- have boosted spending to around 24 percent, while revenue has dropped to 15 percent from its 18-19 percent longtime average).

It is simply not plausible to argue that as we double the number of seniors on Social Security and Medicare, Uncle Sam will be able to operate at spending levels 10 to 20 percent below those over which America’s modern conservative icon presided. (Though, as my colleague Dana Milbank notes, Reagan agreed to raise taxes 11 times.) Today there’s no question: Taxes must rise.

Republican “thinking” about these facts is telling. According to the Wall Street Journal, House leaders picked 19.9 percent as their cap “because it is in line with the average spending level over the last thirty years.”

Well, sorry, GOP: The average spending levels of the last 30 years are irrelevant because we weren’t retiring 76 million baby boomers over the last 30 years.  And decades ago per capita health costs for seniors were far smaller than they are today. 

Let me pause so there’s no caricaturing of these views as belonging to some “tax and spend liberal.” I’ve advocated more “conservative” changes to Social Security than Paul Ryan did in his budget or his prior “roadmap.” I’ve urged progressives to realize that if we don’t slow Medicare’s outsized growth, there will be no money left for poor children, infrastructure, or R&D. And I’ve said we need to learn from countries like Singapore that get outstanding results in health care while spending a fraction of what we spend. So count me as a longtime entitlement reformer who has the arrows from my friends on the left to prove it.

Here’s the point: Even if we enacted the platonic ideal of sane entitlement reform, and trimmed defense (as we need to), Republican budget math still doesn’t come close to adding up. Instead, as my colleagues at the Center for American Progress have shown, shrinking spending to sub-Reagan levels while retiring the boomers would involve dramatic cuts in everything else Americans think of as government – from national parks to NASA to the FBI to cancer research to student loans.

So why does the GOP pretend otherwise? Because acknowledging mathematical reality is too politically painful. Because uttering this simple phrase – “to accommodate the retirement of the baby boomers, taxes will need to rise” – is forbidden by official Republican doctrine.

Because official Republican doctrine has banned honest math.

Aversion to honest math explains why the Ryan budget embraced by the GOP doesn’t balance the budget — even after Medicare changes that may prove fatal to the party -- until the 2030s and racks up at least $14 trillion in debt between now and then. 

That’s because the Ryan budget cuts taxes. Balanced budget math in an aging America doesn’t work without higher taxes.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t cut taxes in the near-term to goose the economy.  But when it comes to a long-term fiscal fix, the GOP’s math anxiety has produced months of debt ceiling charades instead of framing the debate we really need, which is this: Once the economy has more fully recovered, how do we lift taxes to fund the boomers’ retirement in ways least harmful to economic growth?

My own view is that this means slashing payroll taxes and corporate income taxes, while more than offsetting those tax cuts with higher taxes on consumption and dirty energy.  But we can’t even get to this conversation until Republicans relinquish the fantasy that we can keep cutting overall taxes as America ages.

At bottom, this fantasy masks fear. Republicans’ refusal to let go of the old time religion shows how little work the party has done to craft an agenda equal to America’s current challenges. The party has abandoned problem-solving for brand preservation. If tax cuts aren’t our defining issue, Republican pols ask themselves, what distinguishes us from Democrats? Why should voters choose us?

Maybe the Gang of Six can end the GOP’s war on math, but I’m skeptical. For now, if it’s a choice between defying math and staring into this policy and political abyss, Republicans choose defiance.

mattino2@gmail.com