One of the best things about the Bowles-Simpson deficit report: It has exposed where we’ll find the opponents of budget balancing.
On the left, you find them among free-spending liberals who dislike the Bowles-Simpson’s limit upon the upward growth of government. 21%? How are the feds supposed to get by on a measly 21%? These critics think we should put together a budget on the principle:
First the federal government decides everything it wants to spend money on, then we raise taxes to pay for it. The very idea of a budget – that is, an external constraint, a hard requirement that the government make choices – is obnoxious to them.
On the right, we’re hearing a very different kind of opposition.
Listen to Sean Hannity from Wednesday night:
First, they want to increase the Federal Gas Tax rate starting in 2013 by 15 cents per gallon. Next they propose increasing the Social Security retirement age. Now third, the commission is calling for cuts in both Social Security and Medicare benefits. … If you’re going to say to the American people after they squandered our Social Security trust fund, it was never put in a lock box, and they bankrupted the country — if they’re going to say by the way, we’re going to give you Social Security the day before you die, if you’re lucky. And we’re going to means test it so you’ve got to pay your whole life, and if you paid your whole life, you’re going to — we’re going to confiscate it basically.
Hannity is expressing here something more than the routine conservative view that the budget must be balanced without additional taxes. Hannity’s attacking the commission – and continues to do so throughout his program – for daring to touch the country’s biggest spending programs, Medicare and Social Security.
It’s easy to be snarky about this: Hannity’s particular complaints are (surprise!) poorly informed. Nobody’s proposing to confiscate Social Security.
But let’s step past the snark. Hannity may not know much about the commission recommendations, but he knows a lot about his audience. That audience is overwhelmingly made up of upper-income senior citizens. Hannity is speaking to one of the oldest audiences on television: 30% of his viewers are over 65, 65% of his viewers are over 50.
(The comparable figures for The Daily Show are 6% over 65, 26% over age 50.)
Despite the inaccuracy of Hannity’s particular indictments, it is true: The deficit commission report targets the pocketbooks of upper income seniors. Their Social Security payments will increase more modestly than those of poorer seniors. Reductions in Medicare payments to doctors will likely cause a rise in their out-of-pocket medical expenses.
It might be said: this is almost unavoidable. Seniors are the biggest total beneficiaries of the American welfare state. If that state’s growth is to be controlled, seniors will have to accept less than they are currently expecting. But it seems harsh to squeeze poorer and richer seniors equally: the wealthier seniors will lose more.
Trouble is, not only do wealthier seniors provide the largest segment of the Sean Hannity audience – they have also become the voting bulwark of the Republican party, and especially the congressional Republican party.
What we see in today’s GOP is a party whose ideology (limited government) and whose constituency (the biggest recipients of domestic government spending) are sharply at variance. That variance is not a sustainable situation. In fact, it’s not sustained.
At the operational level, the GOP is a spending party. Tea Party or no Tea Party, a spending party the GOP will remain. If anything, the Tea Party reinforces the spending tendency of the GOP by redirecting the GOP away from business interests to its senior constituency. In 1995, congressional Republicans triggered a government shut down by asking senior citizens to contribute slightly more to their Medicare. In the summer of 2009, Republicans denounced – not only any reductions in Medicare – but even any attempt to compare the effectiveness of Medicare treatments.
Republicans have to date resolved the contradictions between their voters and their ideology by relying on wishful thinking. Lower taxes will stimulate growth which will pay for programs. Or else we’ll deal with “the entitlements” at some point in the future. Or else that the real money is going somewhere else: NPR maybe or foreign aid or welfare.
Above all of course the contradiction is resolved by deficit spending. We express our ideology in our tax policy, our interests in our spending policy, and even before the financial crisis, those two lines had grown almost half a trillion dollars apart.
When the time comes at last to close that gap, we’ll face a quandary. We’re going to need either to modify our ideology or discipline our base. As is, we’re paralyzed between the two.