Saturday, October 10, 2009

From Dutch to Ike

In the Times last week, David Leonhardt writes about Bruce Bartlett, who was a staffer to Jack Kemp back when he was writing the legislation that eventually became Reagan's signature 1981 tax cut. According to Leonhardt:
[P]erhaps the most persistent — and thought-provoking — conservative critic of the party has been Bruce Bartlett. Mr. Bartlett has worked for Jack Kemp and Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush. He has been a fellow at the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation. He wants the estate tax to be reduced, and he thinks that President Obama should not have taken on health reform or climate change this year.

Above all, however, he thinks that the Republican Party no longer has a credible economic policy. It continues to advocate tax cuts even though the recent Bush tax cuts led to only mediocre economic growth and huge deficits. (Numbers from the Congressional Budget Office show that Mr. Bush’s policies are responsible for far more of the projected deficits than Mr. Obama’s.)

On the spending side, Republican leaders criticize Mr. Obama, yet offer no serious spending cuts of their own. Indeed, when the White House has proposed cuts — to parts of Medicare, to an outdated fighter jet program and to subsidies for banks and agribusiness — most Republicans have opposed them.

How, Mr. Bartlett asks, is this conservative? How is it in keeping with a party that once prided itself on fiscal responsibility — the party of President Dwight Eisenhower (who refused to cut taxes because the budget wasn’t balanced) or of the first President Bush (whose tax increase helped create the 1990s surpluses)?

“So much of what passes for conservatism today is just pure partisan opposition,” Mr. Bartlett says. “It’s not conservative at all.”
So Bartlett is now an advocate of "fiscal responsibility," and he is intellectually honest enough to say that this means higher taxes. In a recent Forbes column he wrote:
Everyone knows that fiscal discipline must be restored eventually, or we will face truly horrifying consequences--defaulting on the debt, nonpayment of Social Security benefits, a collapsing dollar, and double-digit inflation and interest rates. Everyone also knows that this will involve a combination of higher revenues and lower spending. The idea that we can restore fiscal health only with spending cuts is childish, as I tried to explain last week.
While there is some truth in his argument that the contemporary Republican anti-tax reflex is pretty far removed from the "supply side" principles of the Kemp-Roth bill (see, e.g., this post at Capital Gains and Games), it is a bit ironic to see an original Reagan revolutionary sounding like such an Eisenhower Republican (or Clinton/Rubin Democrat). EconomistMom likes what he's saying.

Update (10/16): Bartlett explains his thinking further in a blog post "Supply Side Economics, RIP."

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