Wild-eyed and wondering about its fate on the eve of "Armageddon" (the Gramm-Rudman sequesters that, predictably, did not happen), Washington read a New York Times jeremiad about the coming chaos. Cuts in the weather service would mean the "accuracy of weather forecasts might deteriorate." Gosh.
But in the nick of time, the budgeteers nicked the deficit just enough to justify the real purpose of the exercise, another change in what are smilingly called the "requirements" of the Gramm-Rudman (more smiles) "law." The target for fiscal 1991 was $64 billion in cuts. During the dickering about this deal, the official estimate of the budget deficit was increased by about that much, to $293.7 billion.
But before believing that number, bear in mind that two Sundays ago two intelligent senators, Democrat Fritz Hollings of South Carolina and Republican Phil Gramm of Texas, were asked on television a rudimentary (you might have thought) question: How big is the deficit? That is, what is the relevant number for the difference between the inflow and outgo of government money?
Gramm said $250 billion (this was before the latest upward revision of projections). Hollings said that counting the year's costs of the savings-and-loan bailout and subtracting the funds from the Social Security and other trust funds, the number $427 billion was about right. So two experienced senators were apart by $177 billion in defining the problem. And $177 billion is more than quadruple the $40 billion that the budgeteers propose (God and Newt Gingrich willing) to nibble from the deficit.
Originally they set for themselves the modest goal of cutting $50 billion. (Political rhythms run counter to economic cycles: When the economy is expanding, the political class says we will grow to a balanced budget; when the economy is squishy, the political class says cuts will bring on a contraction. Besides, serious cutting is impossible in an election year or the year before one.) But while the deficit projection was being increased by $60 billion, the deficit-cutting goal was being shrunk to $40 billion. That is, $40 billion not counting the cost of the Persian Gulf operation.
It is an iron law of our politics: Inflation of language accompanies contraction of political perspective. The most frequently used word concerning the deficit-cutting package is "pain."
A pack-a-day smoker (someone not deterred by the prospective pain of emphysema and lung cancer) will pay $14.80 more next year -- not nearly enough to pay the social costs of smoking. Yo, you three-beers-a-night guys, brace yourselves for paying an extra $29.20 a year. Call it Pain Lite.
The surtax on automobiles costing more than $30,000 is back-door protectionism. The bulk of those cars are foreign. The surtax is actually a tariff against Germany (Mercedes, BMW, Porsche) and Britain (Jaguar).
But even if the filthy rich do not buy jets or yachts, they do not escape unnicked. For someone earning $200,000, the reduction of the value of itemized deductions will be equivalent to an increase in the top income-tax rate -- here we tiptoe to the pain threshold -- from 28 to 28.8 percent. And you thought Bolshevism was dead.
Of the five-year increase of $134 billion in tax revenues, more than half, $74 billion, comes from regressive consumer excise taxes. The gas tax alone -- the tax consumers have the least chance to minimize -- will raise $45 billion, which is 24 times as much as all the taxes on yachts and jets and other toys for the filthy rich.
Conservatives are cast down and rising in revolt because the capital-gains rate will not be cut. (That cut is the only grand passion of a president enjoying stratospheric approval ratings. So much for the Imperial Presidency.) But conservatives have this consolation: The conservative aim has been to scrub America clean of the last trace of liberalism, and this deficit-reduction deal does it.
This package and its implications should immunize Democrats against the dread charge that they even remember anything about liberalism. But, then, perhaps Republicans have -- not difficult, this -- outsmarted themselves. The (definite article: "the") Republican idea is to call opponents liberals. Republicans no longer can do that, without laughing, now that Democrats are preening like this:
We Democrats are proud because we have not made life more regressive by cutting capital-gains rates. That is the (definite article: "the") Democratic idea: opposition to capital-gains cuts.
Democratic liberalism having been validated by that victory, Democrats are now free to reject Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's proposal to cut the regressive Social Security tax which, for 74 percent of taxpayers, is a bigger burden than the income tax.
Liberalism's service to those 74 percent is this warning: Stay away from yacht salesmen.