Make-believe politics

On the right, we have conservatives clamoring for tax cuts when, as a practical matter, today’s massive budget deficits preclude permanent new tax cuts. With present policies and a decent economic recovery, the federal government could easily spend $12 trillion more than it collects in taxes from 2009 to 2020, reckons the Congressional Budget Office. So before reducing taxes, the tax-cut advocates need to identify hundreds of billions of annual spending reductions — or accept huge and hazardous annual deficits. Naturally, a comprehensive list of spending cuts is nowhere in sight.

On the left, President Obama and Democrats have spent the past year arguing that, despite the government’s massive deficits and overspending, they can responsibly propose even more spending. Future deficits are to be ignored (present deficits, to be sure, partially reflect the economic slump). The proposal is “responsible” because it’s “paid for” through new taxes and spending cuts. Even if these financing sources were completely believable (they aren’t), the logic is that the government can undertake new spending before dealing with the consequences of old spending. Of course, most households and businesses can’t do this…

The result is a paradox. This electioneering style of governing strives to bolster politicians’ popularity. But it does the opposite. Because partisan rhetoric creates exaggerated expectations of what government can do, people across the ideological spectrum are routinely disillusioned. Because actual problems fester — and people see that — public trust of political leaders erodes.