All Aboard the Pro-Government Bandwagon

Nov 13, 2012Jeff Madrick

Cracks are beginning to show in conservatives' opposition to government, but progressives still need to make the case for higher tax revenues.

So now everyone is climbing aboard the government-is-necessary bandwagon. I use as my litmus tests David Brooks and Ross Douthat, conservative op-ed columnists of The New York Times.

To myself and my colleagues, who have been fighting this battle for some time, the Johnny-come-latelys, even among the Democrats, are welcome. I wrote a book called The Case for Big Governmentpublished in 2008, based on lectures I gave back in 2006. A few years before that, I wrote a speech for Senator Ted Kennedy on this subject, largely with historical references about what government did for America in the preceding 200 years, that he gave to considerable notice from his own senatorial colleagues. I was writing a monthly column in The New York Times before that, which persistently sounded this theme. I can’t remember many of the editors being enthused. When I complained about education decline or lack of good wages, one reporter told me to look at how high a proportion of people now owned a home. Many, if not the vast majority, in the media who covered such matters believed in the new “American model,” not to mention the “Washington consensus" -- that is, deregulation, low taxes, and Wall street hegemony.

The financial crisis, Hurricane Sandy, foreclosures, and ultimately the lack of jobs in a Great Recession have changed some of that. We at the Roosevelt Institute started Rediscovering Government with enthusiastic support from Roosevelt’s management and similarly enthusiastic financial support from Bernard Schwartz and a couple of others. We plan to keep sounding the theme about restoring faith in government and take the program to a new level in 2013, bearing down in particular on government and jobs.

Meanwhile, some traditional Republican voices are sounding a bit more constructive about government than they used to. Make no mistake, they are still hesitant, but the language is changing.

David Brooks is now talking about how the big-government-versus-small-government argument is no longer that relevant. He suggests it’s because of the changing composition of the American voting public. “The Pew Research Center,” he writes, “does excellent research on Asian-American and Hispanic values. Two findings jump out. First, people in these groups have an awesome commitment to work. By most measures, members of these groups value industriousness more than whites. Second, they are also tremendously appreciative of government. In survey after survey, they embrace the idea that some government programs can incite hard work, not undermine it; enhance opportunity, not crush it.”

Now, don’t be surprised the Brooks twists American history into something so simplistic it is unrecognizable in order to make the Asian and Hispanic electorate sound like an unprecedented cultural shift in the nation. He says the old Protestant nation had disdain for government and now they are—so he implies—losing their influence. He of course does this kind of simplistic reading of American history from time to time. Who supported the great progressive revolution of the 1930s well before the Asian and Hispanic rise? This kind of idea—that culture explains so much—is generally dangerous.

But the point here is that Brooks is now saying Republicans have to get off the anti-government kick. He goes on: “Moreover, when they look at the things that undermine the work ethic and threaten their chances to succeed, it’s often not government. It’s a modern economy in which you can work more productively, but your wages still don’t rise. It’s a bloated financial sector that just sent the world into turmoil. It’s a university system that is indispensable but unaffordable. It’s chaotic neighborhoods that can’t be cured by withdrawing government programs. For these people, the Republican equation is irrelevant. When they hear Romney talk abstractly about Big Government vs. Small Government, they think: He doesn’t get me or people like me." 

Well, that’s a heck of a breakthrough, even if argued on spurious grounds about how more and more Americans don’t have old-fashioned American cultural roots. Let’s just get away from the cultural stuff. Who elected Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson before Hispanics voted? Who backed the progressive income tax at the start of the 20th century?

Anyway, the conservative punditry is shifting. Ross Douthat, the other conservative regular on the Times op-ed page, has a firmer grasp of historical context than does Brooks. He only partly buys into the “demographic excuse,” as he puts it. As he says, “Republicans are also losing because today’s economic landscape is very different than in the days of Ronald Reagan’s landslides. The problems that middle-class Americans faced in the late 1970s are not the problems of today. Health care now takes a bigger bite than income taxes out of many paychecks. Wage stagnation is a bigger threat to blue-collar workers than inflation. Middle-income parents worry more about the cost of college than the crime rate. Americans are more likely to fret about Washington’s coziness with big business than about big government alone. “

And he recognizes that Hispanics are not a one-issue demographic group. A simple change in immigration policy won’t win them over to the Republicans. He importantly concedes that Latinos tend to see government more as an ally than a foe. And increasingly others in his political camp are talking that way. He notes, “As the American Enterprise Institute’s Henry Olsen writes, it should be possible for Republicans to oppose an overweening and intrusive state while still recognizing that 'government can give average people a hand up to achieve the American Dream.' It should be possible for the party to reform and streamline government while also addressing middle-class anxieties about wages, health care, education and more."

And now some conservatives are even saying the Republicans should give up their resistance to higher rates on upper income Americans. Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard made headlines when he said just that the other day. 

Glenn Hubbard, a former Romney adviser, says we can raise taxes on the rich by putting caps on deductions like mortgage interest, charitable contributions, and business provided health insurance. This deduction cap is gaining adherents among Democrats. But the devil here is in the details, and when one reads more closely what Hubbard has to say, one sees the dangers if one thinks the battle is won. By no means.

One issue is the refusal to raise income tax rates themselves, say the top bracket to 42 or 43 percent. Hubbard claims this reduces incentives. This was the same argument Martin Feldstein made when he said Bill Clinton’s income tax rate increase on the rich would hurt the economy. The Clinton boom soon followed. There is no accepted evidence that higher rates on the rich would dampen economic growth. A research report to that effect was completed and about to to be published by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, and it was suppressed by the Republicans.

The more important point Hubbard makes is that most deficit-cutting should be accomplished by reducing government spending, not tax increases. And to him this necessarily means cutting the safety net and, probably, public investment.

Hubbard makes the critical point, however, as much as he disagrees with it. If Americans wants a bigger government, most Americans, not just the rich, will have to pay. But a lot more of the taxes can come from the rich than he admits. There’s a lot of room to raise taxes in America compared to tax bites in other rich nations. 

The battle for an active, constructive use of government will remain a tough one, even as the conservatives start compromising modestly. And the fight should ultimately be over tax increases, once the economy starts growing rapidly again (and not until then!).

So, for those of us who believe in the constructive purpose of government, we have to show how higher tax revenues can be put to critical work. We can do that. 

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick is the Director of the Roosevelt Institute’s Rediscovering Government initiative and author of Age of Greed.

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