I’m interrupting Bookapalooza so I can do some random political ranting. I know how you all just love that. That’s why I do it–for you, not me. I’m totally kidding. It’s all for me. Sometimes I just have to say stuff. Not often, just sometimes. And this is one of those times. People keep talking about “going over the fiscal cliff,” and when I first heard that term “fiscal cliff,” I wasn’t even sure what it meant. Who wants to go over any kind of cliff? That sounds terrible. I still don’t know if it’s a good or bad thing, this fiscal cliff going-over. I’m only half-paying attention to the news these days. Apparently the Democrats want to raise the top marginal tax rate from 35% to 37% and the Republicans want to keep tax rates where they are and cut spending, and that’s more of a problem than usual because they have to reach some kind of agreement before the end of the year or there’s some automatic cliff-jumping that goes into effect, whatever that is. Everything Congress does is so complicated, I can’t even begin to address it. Not without getting paid.
I’m not going to argue the merits of smaller government because that would just be kind of pointless. It’s obvious from the election results that America–at least the half that counts–doesn’t want smaller government. They don’t want entitlement reform. They want to keep government services at the current level, or increase them. Fine. Fair enough. I don’t have to be a partisan Republican hack, you know. I used to be a liberal Democrat; I can put on that hat when I want to. (It’s the white one, right?) My 1992 self is looking at the current state of affairs and thinking, well, at least people realize that society needs to provide these services and that the government needs to guarantee them–that, at least, is progress. What isn’t progress is that people don’t realize that you can’t have all these government services for the low, low price of American tax rates.
Let’s pretend–or, to use a less loaded word…suppose, I guess. Let’s suppose that you can raise the top marginal tax rate 2% without adversely affecting economic growth. Let’s say the Republicans are being silly on that point. It’s certainly possible. Republicans are pretty silly people, at least the ones in Congress. Let’s say the economy keeps growing at the same rate even though the top earners are paying more in taxes. Let’s say that jobs aren’t affected. My 1992 self accepts all of that. My 2012 self might accept all of that, if she were listening, but she’s not, she’s on Facebook playing SongPop. However, there’s just this matter of the $16 trillion debt which we have because the government, under both Republican and Democratic control, has been paying for trillions of dollars’ worth of more stuff by borrowing the money instead of using money it actually has. In fairness, the government doesn’t have enough money to pay for everything Americans want from their government, so what else is it supposed to do? Well, my 1992 self thinks it’s relatively simple: you just tell Americans to suck it up and pay more in taxes. Where do you think you are, the Chuckwagon Buffet? You pay one low price and get all the health care and Social Security you can eat? That’s not how the world works. You can tell by looking at the rest of the world.
Other western-style democracies have much higher levels of government services and benefits–universal health care, paid parental leave, government-subsidized childcare, blah blah blah–all of these wonderful things that lots of Americans would love to have if other Americans would just stop being such stingy suckheads…but they also pay a lot more in taxes than Americans pay. Americans have very low tax rates compared to Europeans. And it isn’t just the rich Europeans who pay a lot in taxes. There actually aren’t that many rich people in Europe. There aren’t that many rich people in the world. That’s why they’re called “the rich.” Everyone in Europe pays higher taxes. That’s the price of a robust social safety net. Everyone has to pay for it, including the sainted middle class. I mean, sure, it would be nice if we could just use rich people’s money because rich people can have a big chunk taken out of their income and never notice it’s gone. That’s what makes them rich, as opposed to merely comfortable.
But not even rich people have enough money to pay for everyone’s health care and retirement plus military and the post office and farm subsidies and whatever the hell else is on the shopping list. Moreover, the top category of income earners is a volatile, unpredictable source of revenue. You need a broader tax base to provide a consistent stream of revenue so that you can pay for all the stuff people want. Personally, my 2012 self thinks that a European-style welfare state is unsustainable, so there isn’t much point going down that road to begin with–but 2012 self was not invited to the conversation. This is just 1992 self talking here, and she is telling you that you cannot balance the budget by raising taxes on only the top income earners and not touching entitlements. She’s not telling you to touch entitlements–God forbid, that would be horrible–but you cannot pay for the entitlements with a 37% top marginal tax rate. You can’t pay for the entitlements with a 57% top marginal tax rate, or with a 77% top marginal tax rate, if the other tax rates stay where they are. It just won’t work. Neither 2012 self nor 1992 self has a degree in economics. They just both took math.
So what’s the point, as regards the fiscal cliff? I don’t know. Who cares? I’m sorry, but it’s very hard to care. This is just another pointless argument in a series of pointless arguments about how many more years we can avoid addressing the real problem, which is that Americans eat too much and don’t go to the gym enough. No, wait, that’s another thing. No, wait, it’s a metaphor. Americans want European-style government without European-style taxes, and it’s just not going to work for much longer. Actually, technically, it’s already not working very well. But eventually it’s going to quit working completely, and all I can say is I’m glad I’ll be dead by then (probably). Or at least suffering from dementia. If I have to go into a government nursing home, which I probably will, just shoot me. Or if guns are too hard to come by, just crush up all my government-issued Valium and stick it in my government-issued oatmeal. I’ll be hoarding them for that very purpose.
In related news, I picked my daughter up from the high school today, and there were some students breakdancing in the lobby. Breakdancing. I kid you not. There’s probably metaphor to be scraped out of that anecdote too, but I’m too American to bother.