Friday, December 21, 2012

American taliban.

National Rifle Association Executive Director Wayne LaPierre really out-did himself this week. Speaking in response to the Newtown, Connecticut shooting, LaPierre concluded that armed guards in the schools were the answer. Like those old time liberals he so disdains, LaPierre's solution to mass murder in schools was to throw money at the problem, demanding that Congress "appropriate whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every single school in this nation."

In the days leading up LaPierre public statement, the NRA announced that it was "prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again." As it turns out, LaPierre offered nothing meaningful in his statement, and the only contributions were those that he demanded come from Congress--which is to say from the rest of us. On the issues of assault weapons or background checks, LaPierre would give no ground. And where might the money come from? No doubt from other federal education dollars. Perhaps we could divert National Science Foundation funding for science and mathematics education to pay for armed school guards.

Better that he had kept his mouth shut.

In one week, the two major planks of the Republican Party have demonstrated later stages of rot. Even more than its anti-abortion stance, the Republican Party is bound to its anti-tax pledge and pro-gun commitments. And those two political shibboleths are enforced by the organizational and political skills of the two men who are their public personae: Americans for Tax Reform founder Grover Norquist and LaPierre.

On Thursday, House Republicans walked out on Speaker John Boehner and formally rebuffed his public suggestion that they might be prepared to make a meaningful contribution to the fiscal cliff negotiations. But like the NRA, the House Republicans were unmoved by the urgency of the moment. The anti-tax pledge of the Republican party was formulated a quarter century ago under the premise that denying revenue to government would necessarily result in smaller government. Starve the beast was the mantra, and shrinking the size of government was the objective. But Norquist and his acolytes misjudged the American public and the Republican Party itself. As much as Americans in general, and Republicans in particular, might dislike paying taxes, neither has shown any interest in shrinking the size of government.

Even as Republicans rail away at the evils of debt, they have shown a consistent willingness to drive the nation's borrowing ever upward rather than see any reductions in spending on the military or Medicare, the programs most dear to their constituents. Even the much vaunted Ryan budget approved by the House eschewed any specifics on where future cuts might come from, and if our national politics have shown nothing, it is that to demand reductions in spending without specifics is vacuous hubris.

Then on Friday, Wayne LaPierre's words made a mockery of any serious discussion of school safety. In truth, there was nothing new in the tragedy in Newtown. While MSNBC host and erstwhile presidential candidate Joe Scarborough made an impassioned plea that the Newtown murders change everything, in fact that tragedy simply brought home to white, suburban America the reality of the random and tragic murders of children that have become commonplace across urban America, where 20 children a month die from random gun violence.

For LaPierre to suggest the militarization of schools ignores the metal detectors and guards already commonplace in urban schools. And perhaps that was his point. Perhaps unlike the rest of the nation that has, like Scarborough, seen Newtown as a siren call for change, LaPierre knows well that cities have been fighting a losing battle with guns for decades without the political muster to take him on.  LaPierre knows well that there have been six mass shootings since Jared Lee Loughner shot Gabby Giffords two years ago, sparking calls for change. LaPierre will stand his ground, firm in the belief he need give no quarter, that the anger always subsides.

In their embrace of absolute doctrine without regard to the facts on the ground, the anti-tax and pro-gun movements have contributed to the undermining of democratic society. Both stances refuse dialog and disdain compromise. Taxes in America have declined steadily for the decades since Norquist came on the scene, and that is in large measure is doing. But Norquist and his movement utterly failed to wean Americans off of their reliance on and demand for public spending. Over the past decade alone, even as individual income taxes have declined by 25% as a share of GDP, the areas of public spending most dear to the Republican base--military and entitlements--have grown faster than any other, up 56% and 37% as a share of GDP. Rather than shrink the size of government, Norquist has cultivated a world of followers content to give less to even as they demand more from their government. He has essentially turned John Kennedy's notion of public citizenship on its head, and contributed to Americans becoming a meaner and more self-centered electorate.

Which would seem to be an abt description of the contribution that Wayne LaPierre has made. Like Norquist, LaPierre is an absolutist, and absolutism is necessarily destructive of open dialog and compromise in a diverse democratic society. Few in America challenge the basic right of gun ownership in America, it is a reality and distinctive aspect of American culture dating to the nation's founding. Yet the demands of the NRA that even the most moderate limitations on gun sales and ownership be assessed only as part of the slippery slope to "government taking our guns" makes a mockery of the issue. After all, if the slope has been slippery, it is sliding in the wrong direction. Assault weapons.  Semi-automatics with high-capacity magazines. Machine guns. Grenade launchers. Rocket propelled grenades. Depleted uranium bullets. These are not the arms envisioned by the founders.

For LaPierre to demand that the federal government fund armed guards in every school rather than simply engage in reasonable discussion of the ease with which any American can arm him or herself like a Navy Seal dropping into Abbottabad defies belief.

On the radio after the LaPierre statement, an NRA member suggested that what we really need is a list of mentally ill people circulated as a "do not sell" list to gun dealers. Really?

Mitt Romney may have lost the Presidency due to a campaign that ignored the evolving diversity of the American electorate. But the Republican Party risks losing its salience as a political party as its members increasingly prove themselves unwilling and unable to demonstrate that they are free thinking adults able to have real discourse on the real challenges that face the country.

The Republican Party has won control of the House of Representatives in large part due to years of paying systematic attention to the decennial redistricting as a path to electoral advantage. But anchored in its absolutist policies, and hearing only the voices of those within their circle, Republican leaders are at risk of mistaking that gerrymandered majority to be evidence of popular support for their leadership on issues. Over the years, in thrall of Norquist and LaPierre and the Tea Party, the GOP has steadily lost its own center. What was once the party of grownups--the party of fiscal prudence and sound judgement--is increasingly slipping down a slope of its own and becoming a party of outliers and extremists. If nothing changes--and this was the point of Scarborough's plea--it will push away many who identify themselves as Republicans, but who increasingly find their party lacking the seriousness of purpose necessary to lead the nation. 

A unique moment.

We must protect the middle class! The cry has gone out from Washington in the wake of the failure of John Boehner to pass his Plan B budget plan. House Republicans--whose votes are needed for any fiscal cliff resolution--have gone home for the holiday, yet somehow that is supposed to leave the problem to the President and the Senate. I am not sure I understand that logic.

For some reason, people are expressing shock and surprise that House Republicans got their backs up and refused to go along. What else were they to do? Washington is a place where legislators vote their political interest. Republicans for a quarter century have declined to vote for taxes, to remain true to their pledge. Democrats have voted for wars in fear of being labeled unpatriotic, and voted to deregulate the financial system in pursuit of campaign cash. Who since Congresswoman Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky has fallen on her sword for the team or the nation? This is how the game is played, don't point the finger at Republicans.

But many in Washington should embrace the prospect of no resolution to the fiscal cliff prior to the end of the year. For their part, true conservative Republicans who believe in balanced budgets should be excited at the prospect of the expiration of the Bush tax cuts and the mandatory spending cuts, all due to arrive with the new year. A quick glimpse at the website of the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office illustrates the projected impact of allowing those schedule changes to take place, and the dire consequences of continuing down the business-as-usual path we are on.

On the other side of the aisle, liberal Democrats should be gleeful to finally achieve the sunset of tax cuts that they long despised, along with substantial cuts in military spending. Come the new year, they will have a more Democratic Congress and be in a stronger position to negotiate budget amendments to their liking.

There should, therefore, be a strong constituency for doing nothing.

Just imagine, if Washington would just do nothing, all the years and years of wrangling over the long slide of our nation toward fiscal calamity would be over. Overnight, we would achieve a degree of fiscal balance that most Americans must have come to believe is not possible.

And all it takes is for Congress and the President to do nothing.

Overnight, we would achieve a new and fiscally balanced baseline. If there is to be tax reform, it can be done in a balanced and patient manner. If spending levels are to be restored, those decisions can be made against a backdrop where for the first time in decades, spending reductions have been made in a fair manner.

Many have been quick to quote the Congressional Budget Office report that suggests that if the fiscal cliff is not avoided, GDP growth will be 0.5% lower and unemployment will increase at the end of 2013, and the nation risks a slide back into recession. But this selective citing of that report ignores the larger message that suggests that doing nothing will lead to far healthier growth in the ensuing years.

"If the fiscal tightening was removed and the policies that are currently in effect were kept in place indefinitely, a continued surge in federal debt during the rest of this decade and beyond would raise the risk of a fiscal crisis (in which the government would lose the ability to borrow money at affordable interest rates) and would eventually reduce the nation’s output and income below what would occur if the fiscal tightening was allowed to take place as currently set by law."

The essential message of the CBO report is what any rational person would presume to be the case: We have become addicted to paying our way on borrowed money, and weaning ourselves off of that practice will involve some pain. The longer we wait, the more painful withdrawal will be.

Why do politicians and pundits ignore the CBO's larger message that we will all be better off if nothing is done? The urgent calls to protect the middle class mask the desire of many in Washington to have a bill at year end that can do many things for many interest groups. It is Christmas and lobbyists are working overtime to get their piece of the Christmas tree legislation they see coming to a vote before year end. Just as tax credits for low income Americans were the lubricant that assured the passage of the Bush tax cuts a decade ago, this year tax relief for the middle class is the cover for a wide range of interests. Would people really be surprised to wake up in January to realize that the fiscal cliff legislation passed in the dead of some late December night actually made our situation worse?

Meanwhile, the facts about tax rates are simply ignored in the calls to protect the middle class from an encroaching government. Yet the facts suggest that every quintile of Americans has seen their total average federal tax rate and average individual income tax rate decline steadily over the past quater century. For the lowest quintile of Americans the average tax rate has declined 89%, for the second quintile the decline has been 52%, for the third quintile 38%, for the fourth quintile 26%, and for the top quintile 3%. Only the top 5% of Americans have seen their overall tax rate rise over time. And, as candidate Romney pointed out, in the case of federal income taxes alone, the bottom two quintiles of Americans have negative income tax rates (due to tax credits), while the middle quintile average income tax rate of 1.3% in 2009 represented a decline of 80% over the past quarter century.

For 30 years, tax cuts have been justified on the basis of an imperative that we "grow our way" to fiscal balance, and give Americans back their money. But the data simply don't support the argument that middle class Americans are over-taxed. Over the past decade, spending may have grown substantially, with military spending and entitlement spending leading the way, up 56% and 37% as a share of GDP. But American taxpayers are have not paid for that spending, as income tax revenues have declined by 25% as a share of GDP over that same timeframe. If there is a disconnect, it is the belief on the part of Americans--nurtured by a self-serving political class--that they are not getting what they pay for. The facts suggest quite the opposite, across the range of discretionary and entitlement programs, Americans are getting a lot, and paying less and less for it every year.

If the clock runs out midnight December 31st and there is no resolution to the fiscal cliff, the nation will have the opportunity to reset the terms of the fiscal debate in Washington. The Bush tax cuts will be behind us and the budget ground rules will have changed.

We are at a unique moment. If our leaders in Washington fail to act, they may solve a problem that has vexed our polity for years.