But if Republicans continue to be led around by, and live in fear of, a base that denies global warming after Hurricane Sandy and refuses to ban assault weapons after Sandy Hook — a base that would rather see every American’s taxes rise rather than increase taxes on millionaires — the party has no future. It can’t win with a base that is at war with math, physics, human biology, economics and common-sense gun laws all at the same time.
Because they control the House, this radical Republican base is now holding us all back. President Obama was moving to the center in these budget negotiations. He reduced his demand for higher tax revenues to $1.2 trillion from $1.6 trillion; he upped the level at which Americans who would be hit with higher taxes to those earning $400,000 a year from $250,000; and he made his own base holler by offering to cut long-term spending by lowering the inflation adjustment index for Social Security. It seemed that with a little more Republican compromise, Obama would have met them in the middle, and we could have had a grand bargain that would put the country on a sounder fiscal trajectory and signal to the markets, the world and ourselves that we can still do big hard things together. That will have to wait. Now the best hope is some mini-, crisis-averting, Band-Aid.
Was 2012 the year when the democratic world lost its grip on reality? Must we assume now that no party that speaks the truth about the economic future has a chance of winning power in a national election? With the results of presidential contests in the United States and France as evidence, this would seem to be the only possible conclusion. Any political leader prepared to deceive the electorate into believing that government spending, and the vast system of services that it provides, can go on as before – or that they will be able to resume as soon as this momentary emergency is over – was propelled into office virtually by acclamation.
So universal has this rule turned out to be that parties and leaders who know better – whose economic literacy is beyond question – are now afraid even to hint at the fact which must eventually be faced. The promises that governments are making to their electorates are not just misleading: they are unforgivably dishonest. It will not be possible to go on as we are, or to return to the expectations that we once had. The immediate emergency created by the crash of 2008 was not some temporary blip in the infinitely expanding growth of the beneficent state. It was, in fact, almost irrelevant to the larger truth which it happened, by coincidence, to bring into view. Government on the scale established in most modern western countries is simply unaffordable. In Britain, the disagreement between Labour and the Conservatives over how to reduce the deficit (cut spending or increase borrowing?) is ridiculously insignificant and out of touch with the actual proportions of the problem. In the UK, the US, and (above all) the countries of the EU, democratic politics is being conducted on false premises.
Of course, once in power all governments must deal with reality – even if they have been elected on a systematic lie. As one ex-minister famously put it when he was released from the burden of office: “There’s no money left.” So that challenge must be met. How do you propose to go on providing the entitlements that you have sworn never to end, without any money? The victorious political parties of the Left have a ready answer to that one. They will raise taxes on the “rich”. In France and the United States, this is the formula that is being presented not only as an economic solution but also as a just social settlement, since the “rich” are inherently wicked and must have acquired their wealth by confiscating it from the poor.
Of course, the moral logic of this principle is absurd. The amount of wealth in an economy is not fixed so that one person having more means that somebody else must have less. But, for the purposes of our problem, it is the fault in the economic logic that is more important. The amount of money that is required to fund government entitlement programmes is now so enormous that it could not be procured by even very large increases in taxation on the “rich”. Assuming that you could get all of the rich members of your population to stand still and be fleeced (rather than leaving the country, as Gérard Depardieu and a vast army of his French brethren are doing), there are simply not enough of them to provide the revenue that a universal, comprehensive benefits system requires. And if all the French rich did stay put, and submit to President Hollande’s quixotic 75 per cent income tax, they would soon be too impoverished to invest in the supply side of the economy, which would undermine any possibility of growth.
Barack Obama knows that a tax rise of those proportions in the US would be politically suicidal, so he proposes a much more modest increase – an income tax rate of around 40 per cent on the highest earners sounds very modest indeed to British ears. But that is precisely the problem. If a tax rise is modest enough to be politically acceptable to much of the electorate, it will not produce anything like enough to finance the universal American entitlement programmes, social security and Medicare, into a future with an ageing population. There is no way that “taxing the rich” – that irresistibly glib Left-wing solution to everything – can make present and projected levels of government spending affordable. That is why Britain and almost all the countries of the EU have redefined the word “rich” to mean those who are earning scarcely twice the average wage, and pulled more and more middle-income people into high tax bands. Not only are there vastly more of them but they are far more likely to stand still and be fleeced, because they do not have the mobility of the truly rich.