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Promises, Promises

Promises, Promises

By Charles Kesler - June 3, 2012

Out of the mouths of babes, and pirates, can come wisdom. The pirate in this case is the Pirate Captain, as he's called, brilliantly voiced by Hugh Grant in the new stop-motion animation film, The Pirates! Band of Misfits. His quest to win the Pirate of the Year award brings him in contact with Charles Darwin and his servant monkey Bobo, who resembles his master or perhaps the other way around, and an evil Queen Victoria, whose royal crest proclaims, "I Hate Pirates." Her majesty resembles an angry Hillary Clinton. (A certain former president and his Secret Service detail may wish to avoid the movie's 3D version as too realistic.) More renowned for his "luxuriant beard" than his swashbuckling, the hapless Pirate Captain is devoted to his "parrot" Polly, who turns out to be a much rarer bird. Dashing off on an apparently hopeless mission to rescue Polly from the queen, the Pirate Captain exults, "It's only impossible if you stop to think about it!"

So it is with modern liberalism.

Consider America's fiscal situation, which is dire anyway you cut it. Federal spending on the poor has grown enormously, as Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution told the House Budget Committee in April. The ten largest "means tested" programs (Medicaid, food stamps, earned-income tax credits, etc.) spent $4,300 per poor person in 1980 (in constant 2011 dollars), and $13,000 in 2011. That's a three-fold increase in real, per capita terms. Add in the $209 billion spent by federal programs too "small" to make the Top Ten, and total poverty spending reached $835 billion last year, or $17,380 for each American living below the poverty line. Spending on entitlement programs that aren't means tested was even larger: Social Security cost $731 billion and Medicare $486 billion. And in a dozen years, the number of Medicare and Social Security recipients will have risen by 50%. In 2011 the federal government spent $3.6 trillion, of which it borrowed $1.3 trillion, or more than a third. The Obama Administration expects to borrow a slightly larger amount in 2012. As a result, the gross federal debt stood at $14.8 trillion in 2011, 98.7% of GDP, and will surpass 100% of GDP each year through 2017. "Simply put," writes the steely-eyed Yuval Levin, "we cannot afford to preserve our welfare state in anything like its present form."

The liberals' response to this impending fiscal collapse is mostly "irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas," to use the phrase with which Lionel Trilling once dismissed American conservative thought. Cut defense spending, they cry, since national defense is their least favorite governmental activity. Under Obama we are already cutting it while planning additional cuts as huge as they are reckless. Cut domestic discretionary spending, they suggest, knowing all along there is not enough of it to cut to make a big difference—and that they cannot bear cutting it much in any case. Tax the rich, they scream. But we already do. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the richest tenth of Americans receive 33.5% of all income and pay 45.1% of all taxes (federal, state, and local). That makes our economy less egalitarian but our tax system far more progressive than Sweden's, where the top tenth takes home 26.6% of all income and pays 26.7% of all taxes. In short, not even the most piratical of liberal tax collectors could extort enough money from the rich to pay the enormous bills coming due.

At the deepest level, however, the problem of public credit is a moral problem, involving the promises our government and society have made to our citizens. Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and their successors sold entitlement programs to the American people as the means to fulfill the new kind of rights—to a job, a vacation from the job, a decent home, medical care, and so forth—promised in FDR's "Second Bill of Rights." As rights, these were presumed to be inviolable and sacred, just like those in the first Bill of Rights. Whoever heard of cutting back on free speech because the country couldn't afford it? But the new rights tried to satisfy material needs or desires that were in principle infinite or at least very hard to delimit, with resources that were always going to be finite. It was only impossible if you stopped to think about it. In coming years the American people are going to have to think about it, and their headache and heartache are going to shake our politics. 

Charles R. Kesler is Editor of the Claremont Review of Books, a Senior Fellow at the Claremont Institute, and Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna.

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