A Free Lunch For the Beast

The idea of starving the beast is near death. Sort of. Professor Krugman:

For readers who don’t know what I’m talking about: ever since Reagan, the G.O.P. has been run by people who want a much smaller government. In the famous words of the activist Grover Norquist, conservatives want to get the government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

…The conservative answer, which evolved in the late 1970s, would be dubbed “starving the beast” during the Reagan years. The idea — propounded by many members of the conservative intelligentsia, from Alan Greenspan to Irving Kristol — was basically that sympathetic politicians should engage in a game of bait and switch. Rather than proposing unpopular spending cuts, Republicans would push through popular tax cuts, with the deliberate intention of worsening the government’s fiscal position. Spending cuts could then be sold as a necessity rather than a choice, the only way to eliminate an unsustainable budget deficit.

The problem with this, as Krugman explains is that the biggest and most potentially ruinous (to the economy) government programs that can be cut are the most popular: Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid. The Republican party is so afraid of the idea of cutting these programs that they go the opposite way and expand them: they created Medicare Part D, a huge burden on the economy that was aimed at helping the eldest of the American population.

2010270504The bad thing is the Republicans didn’t bother trying to figure out a way to fund the program—no tax increases, no shifting spending outlays, nothing. Republicans are still starving the beast as far as they’re making promises to pay for things without bothering to figure out ways to pay for them. In the little people world, that’s no different than getting a loan for a pet project with no intention of paying for it.

Now, it’s one thing for someone to take a pay cut—the equivalent of tax cuts—and then live within the lower income—or, spending cuts in government. Spending cuts would require actual cutting. That’s something the Republicans have been trying to avoid like the plague.


So the beast is starving, as planned. It should be time, then, for conservatives to explain which parts of the beast they want to cut. And President Obama has, in effect, invited them to do just that, by calling for a bipartisan deficit commission.

Many progressives were deeply worried by this proposal, fearing that it would turn into a kind of Trojan horse — in particular, that the commission would end up reviving the long-standing Republican goal of gutting Social Security. But they needn’t have worried: Senate Republicans overwhelmingly voted against legislation that would have created a commission with some actual power, and it is unlikely that anything meaningful will come from the much weaker commission Mr. Obama established by executive order.

So what’s going on? The deficit hawks called Republicans are proof evolution is real—they’ve become deficit peacocks. The Center for American Progress defines a deficit peacock:

Deficit peacocks like to preen and call attention to themselves, but are not sincerely interested in taking the difficult but necessary steps toward a balanced budget. Peacocks prefer scoring political points to solving problems.

As an aside, Krugman called out the Obama administration for the pretense of caring about the deficit, branding them deficit peacocks as well.

Nevertheless, Republicans have backed away from any real deficit reduction, even opposing a deficit reduction panel.

Krugman further explains:

In the 1990s, for example, Republicans in Congress tried to force through sharp cuts in Medicare. But now they have made opposition to any effort to spend Medicare funds more wisely the core of their campaign against health care reform (death panels!). And presidential hopefuls say things like this, from Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota: “I don’t think anybody’s gonna go back now and say, Let’s abolish, or reduce, Medicare and Medicaid.”

What about Social Security? Five years ago the Bush administration proposed limiting future payments to upper- and middle-income workers, in effect means-testing retirement benefits. But in December, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page denounced any such means-testing, because “middle- and upper-middle-class (i.e., G.O.P.) voters would get less than they were promised in return for a lifetime of payroll taxes.”

Bush’s Social Security privatization plan didn’t get much backing at all. The Republicans decided they would rather become champions of the entitlement cause.

In an attempt to harness the fears that many seniors have about health care reform, the Republican National Committee released a “Seniors’ Health Care Bill of Rights” today, in which it declares that Medicare should not be “cut”:

PROTECT MEDICARE AND NOT CUT IT IN THE NAME OF HEALTH CARE REFORM: President Obama and Congressional Democrats are promoting a government-run health care experiment that will cut over $500 billion from Medicare to be used to pay for their plan. Medicare should not be raided to pay for another entitlement.

That was the Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele’s idea. Never mind the fact he also wanted to privatize Medicare:

I mean the reality of it is that, you know, this single payer program known as Medicare is a very good example of what we should not have happen with all of our health care. The reality of it is, how may times have we been at the trough of bankruptcy and no money for the Medicare program when Congress is running around like chickens with their heads cut off trying to figure out how to fix a program that they’ve already mismanaged.

So, now you want to do that Congressman on a larger scale? You want to include all of us? You’re talking, taking our senior population and now expanding it to the broader population? Government cannot run a health care system. They’ve already shown that. Trust the private markets to do it the right way. If there are reforms to be put in place, let’s deal specifically with those reforms.

So which is it? Republicans are flip flopping as much as a fish stuck on land.

There is some hope for the starving the beast idea, though. Enter Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) whom I wrote about in a previous post:

His latest road map towards a balanced budget, and privatization of Medicare and the practical elimination of Social Security shows he’s not ready to hide behind the facade Republicans have been presenting the public. While your average Republican in office will decry cutting Medicare and Social Security to avoid the ire of the elderly who would find the cutting a difficult pill to swallow, they secretly want to eliminate both of them. Michelle Bachmann is another who is unafraid to come right out and say itbut she, much like Palin, is more hot air than someone of solid policy and planning. At least Rep. Paul Ryan has the guts to create a road map that would, if implemented, ensure the Republican party would be out of power for a long, long time.

Republican leadership has been very shy about backing Rep. Ryan’s plan even though some conservative groups have commended Ryan for his plan.

Republican leadership for days has been backing away from Rep. Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap” budget – which slashes Social Security and Medicare to end the deficit – but key GOP groups say it’s both bold and brave.

In other words, the idea of starving the beast is very alive in the Republican Party. The problem is that the majority of Republicans are afraid of fulfilling their once-beloved, self-inflicted charge to break the back of the federal government for the sake of making it smaller and, as Grover Norquist put it, “drown it in the bathtub.” The idea of starving the beast has become almost taboo because it’s a political loser—and it’s no secret the Republican Party doesn’t want to lose any more. As a matter of fact, the only section of the party that is genuinely behind the strategy of downsizing the federal government is arguably the lunatic fringe. It may not be long before those people are thrown into the pit with the beast to feed it alongside another unfunded expenditure like Medicare Part D.



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