Empowered by the Vote: Now, What Are We—Yes, WE—Going to Do?

As I stood in the poll lines today, I felt a sense of empowerment and belonging among the voters. Akin to the adrenaline brought out by gathering crowds before a concert or sports event, this impression flowed deeply into my soul and, I’m guessing, yours. This powerful sentiment carries us far beyond election day—so far that democracies like ours aim to fight our battles with ballots, not swords.

Contrast this sense of empowerment with the dispiritedness of campaign commercials. They preach largely a gospel of dependence: if our favored candidates win, they will solve economic stagnation, unemployment, poverty, pollution, child abuse, foreign threats, energy prices, and crime; if our candidates lose, then the best way to attack these problems is by working the next few years to kick out the current regime and replace it with one more to our liking. Republicans are as guilty as Democrats of implying that the answers to all our problems lie in whom we pick for elected office

A question, now asked constantly in campaigns, is whether we are better off than before. The question is no longer asking what we or our community can do to advance; it is as if our vote for George W. Bush 12 years ago or Barack Obama 4 years ago was the decisive element in putting the economy, our society, and our own personal well-being on or off track.

The gap between what candidates can possibly deliver and what they promise to deliver explains, as much as anything, why we have a federal government with power balanced delicately between two parties; the public doesn’t trust either one enough to grant it more exclusive power.

Here’s an interesting exercise. Count the number of times our modern presidents and presidential candidates use “I” in their speeches. Just imagine one of them giving the Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seventy days ago, I had to make the tough decision to send our generals to Gettysburg. I thereby saved the nation. If Congress will only now adopt the additional requests I have put forward, I personally will make us yet more prosperous. Oh, I almost forgot, thanks to the brave men, living and dead, who struggled here to do as I directed.”

I have conservative neighbors who blame their poor job prospects entirely on the Obama presidency. I have liberal friends who think they are going to fundamentally change societal mores with their presidential vote.

When did we evolve to the point where so many think that the future of our society no longer depends upon our own efforts—to work, study, raise children, teach, save for tomorrow, take entrepreneurial chances, support those in need, provide opportunity to all races and age groups, build up charitable institutions, struggle for greater wisdom and understanding, and be there for our family, friends, and nation? Yes, conservatives and liberals claim to believe in these values, but when did so many decide that they are extolled mainly by voting for the right candidate? When did giving to campaigns become more personally valuable than giving to charity?

Of course, whom we elect does make a difference. It matters whether we spend or tax more or less and whether government functions fairly and efficiently. Both excessive government interference and indifference to need, the respective legitimate fears of conservatives and liberals, breed greater problems for society. And, as readers of this column well know, we’re far off the path toward both sustainable and well-functioning government.

For today, however, it’s worth carrying forward that feeling of empowerment and bonding that came from standing in line together at the polls. We united with the person standing next to us, without even knowing for whom she was going to vote. We have been endowed and gifted by our forbearers with the extraordinary possibility to make good things happen for others and ourselves. At the end of the day, our combined struggles to make full use of such possibility, and not the tax break or spending increase some elected official might get for us, will determine how well we advance as a nation.

Thanks for voting. It was fun uniting in this enterprise with you, even those who for some inexplicable reason find my own choices misguided!

Governing After Over-Promising

For almost anyone following closely our presidential candidates’ statements, it is absolutely clear that each pledges more than he can deliver. As a result, we must vote for the candidate who can better govern after over-promising.

Consider especially the big three items driving upward the budget deficits: growth in health costs, growth in retirement costs, and the tax cuts that keep passing our bills and related interest costs onto future generations. One simply can’t balance the long-term budget without dealing with these three. Yet both Obama and Romney remain largely silent about what we might have to give up in these arenas for years to come.

Social Security reform? “We can easily tweak the Social Security program while protecting current beneficiaries, ensuring that it’s there for future generations,” President Obama says. “[I am not] proposing any changes for any current retirees or near retirees, either to Social Security or Medicare,” Governor Romney proclaimed at the first presidential debate.

Medicare? The president fights to retain long-run hopes for “well over $1 trillion” in cost savings that he thinks are in Obamacare. But the Congressional Budget Office says that Obamacare raises health costs overall and that any long-run savings are just that, long-run, as well as uncertain. Romney would replace Obamacare and restore additional Medicare-directed spending.  CBO numbers say that simply abandoning Obamacare would add to the deficit since the bill also includes tax increases and other measures that more than offset the health cost increases.

As for premium support or vouchers versus traditional Medicare, the candidates do engage in a debate, but generally over changes that would be phased in at some time long distant from when they need to tackle the deficit.  Taxes? Romney proclaims that his reform would reduce revenues or at best be revenue neutral: “We are not going to have high-income people pay less of the tax burden than they pay today. […] I do want to bring taxes down for middle-income people.” He would also cut tax rates by 20 percent and “keep revenue up by limiting deductions and exemptions,” or perhaps he would do less, if those limits don’t supply enough revenues.  Obama, in turn, holds with his promise from the last campaign for no tax increases for anyone making less than $250,000. Analysis after analysis shows that keeping this promise would entail only modest progress on the deficit.

Discretionary spending? Although not one of the big three drivers of our budgetary problems, both candidates would pare it dramatically as a share of GDP, but their campaigns only  emphasize what they would protect. Obama would invest in education, and Romney now likes Pell grants, though he would give Big Bird some liposuction. Romney says he would somehow maintain a higher defense budget than Obama.

These candidates are not the first to try to tell us how much they will do for us or at least how they will absolve us—particularly the woe begotten middle class—from sharing in any future budgetary fix. Their complication, even compared with previous presidential elections, is that their new promises stack onto an extraordinary and unprecedented number of unsustainable promises already put into law. I understand why they are scared to death to tell us what reforms might really be required; we voters often jump on the honest candidate and, hence, bear some responsibility for what we get. But that means that in deciding for whom to vote, we must speculate on just which pledges either candidate would violate.

Should we prefer the candidate more willing to declare “oops” once elected?

Do we vote for the one whose future contradictions we believe will be less likely to affect our favorite interests?

Do we favor the politician more adept at dissimulating his past statements?

Consider many of the recent budget agreements and systemic reforms that required us to give up something. Reagan abandoned his opposition to removing tax breaks both in the budget agreements and the major tax reform legislation he signed. He also reversed his previously successful efforts to provide zero and often negative tax rates on some investments. Clinton abandoned his pledge for a tax cut soon after being elected. George H.W. Bush famously abandoned his “no new taxes” pledge. And while poor H.W.’s dissimulation efforts were unsuccessful, conservative and liberal pundits still place Reagan and Clinton high in their respective pantheons.

The president is the only elected official who represents all the American people. The office demands a higher order of integrity and just plain arithmetic discipline than does the role of candidate.  In the end, therefore, we probably pick whomever we think better recognizes that the switch from candidate to president is more of a leap than a transition.

Throwing My Hat in the Ring

My fellow Americans.

Grave issues face this country. This year is unlike any other year.  After listening to the Presidential candidates debate, I’ve decided to give Americans a real choice for president: me.

First, a little bit about myself.

I know what it’s like to be poor. My great-great grandfather was poor, so I understand getting by on almost nothing. I can think back to a time when he didn’t even have indoor plumbing.

I know what it’s like to be a minority. I’m a male, and the majority of the population is female. Most people belong to religions other than mine. Only a small share of the population is my age.

But, unlike my opponents, I don’t identify with some narrow subgroup of the population. I support the right of women and men of all races and religions to pursue the American dream––as long as they agree with my policies. Now, one of my opponents has special appeal to female Tibetan Scientologists from Utah, the other to black male lumberjacks living in New York City. That means the rest of you still have a chance to be represented by voting for me.

In today’s troubled world, I know what it is to be a real man who deals with power. Just thinking about putting troops or police in harm’s way exhausts me. Heck, my hair has already thinned and grayed thinking about the sacrifices I will have to endure as the most powerful person in the world. I’ll try to make available some before-and-after pictures for you to see, too, how eight years in the White House will age me eight years. One day, others will testify how they witnessed my bravery when they weren’t out grabbing me another Diet Coke so I could stay awake past midnight in the Situation Room.

And, I know what it’s like to be a woman. My mother was a woman. I know all too well the difficulties of childbirth: I was right there next to my mother when thrown into the spurned class of the bare at birth. Now, as a candidate, I’m not supposed to talk too sympathetically about myself, but my surrogates have put together candid shots of what my mother, if still alive, would have said about my destiny even from a young age. Other women who have known me when I was out in the working world pursuing my destiny while they were taking care of the family will talk about my humanity and dedication to my family.

Finally, I know what it’s like to struggle. At times I’ve even been between jobs. After leaving the presidency, I’ll have to struggle while I decide whether to sit on corporate boards or make millions of dollars writing my autobiography.

But enough about me. Now to real policy for real Americans––that is, those who show their respect for America by voting against my opponents.

First, you. You’ve paid an unfair share of taxes and gotten an unfair share of benefits. You’re not like that rich guy who pays no income tax or the welfare cheat with houses in Malibu and Miami. They support my opponents. But I understand you. If you’re rich, you already pay infinitely more tax than someone with no income with which to pay taxes. That’s not fair. And if you’re poor, it’s clearly because my opponents’ government policies don’t support you enough or don’t give you adequate incentives. That’s not fair, either.

As for the 99.5 percent of you who are in the middle class, my opponents continually tell you how much they care, but they really don’t.  If they did, why do they confine their borrowing from China and other friendly lenders to a few trillion dollars?

Next, jobs. My opponents hire Harvard economists who calculate the expected growth in the labor force assuming that the unemployment rate will decline to about 5 percent. Then each claims that he individually will create the jobs that the economy would normally create. Not me. Under my policies, the unemployment rate will fall to 4 percent, so I will create at least 1 million more jobs than either of my opponents.

To spur economic recovery, I’ve combined the Democratic Keynesian and Republican supply-side economics of my opponents. That means I can spur demand when I provide you more benefits and increase supply when I reduce your taxes. The former will induce people to spend more, the latter will encourage them to work and save more. Under Steuerle-conomics, a dollar of spending and a dollar of tax cuts will together spur several dollars of increased output, while reducing the deficit because of the economic expansion and investment.

And let me thank you in advance, my fellow Americans, for accepting those higher benefits and lower taxes for the good of your country.

As for the budget, I will take whatever increased deficit I might induce and cut it by two-thirds by the end of my two terms. My opponents pledge to cut their additional deficits only by half, and usually for years after they’ve left the White House.

I could go on. For instance, one of my opponents favors healthcare vouchers for the nonelderly and opposes them for the elderly, the other favors just the opposite.  Both my opponents would reduce Medicare benefits, either through vouchers or greater price controls.  I, however, would grant healthcare providers higher incomes and health consumers more benefits than either of my opponents. And it won’t cost existing taxpayers or Medicare recipients a dime. I’ll just create a special form of government debt that will be paid only by future generations not yet voting.

As you can see, I have everything it takes to run for president in today’s world. I simply take today’s campaign strategies to their logical conclusions. Honest deception! That’s my motto.

The 1 Percent (Political) Solution

Political campaigns, particularly modern ones, tend to revolve around promises. That’s as true of Republicans offering tax cuts as Democrats promising to maintain or increase spending programs. When you see candidates from both parties visiting regions hit by hurricanes or drought, you can be sure they are trying to indicate how much they care for those affected. When politicians do venture onto the other side of the balance sheet — how they will pay for all past and current promises — they move much more gingerly.

A candidate for office effectively divides the population into the “deserving,” who should get more benefits or tax cuts (or at least should not pay more taxes or lose benefits), and the “undeserving,” who are not carrying their own weight. But he or she doesn’t want to put very many people in the latter category, since their votes likely will be lost.

That’s where the 1 percent solution comes in.

For Democrats, the 1 percent is the wealthy. President Obama stakes a lot of his campaign on going after those with incomes over $250,000. Many Congressional Democrats often won’t go that far; they confine their attacks and suggested tax increases to those making over $1 million.

For Governor Romney, the latest 1 percent is welfare recipients. Because the Obama administration recently granted waivers from work requirements to some states, more adults can now get benefits without even trying to work, the Romney campaign claims.

OK, “1 percent” is approximate. For you fact checkers, Tax Policy Center calculations indicate that the number of households facing tax increases under the president’s $250,000 threshold (slightly less for single people) is less than 1½ percent of tax units, and the number making more than $1 million (there’s really no specific tax plan to estimate against) is probably only about ⅓ of 1 percent.

Meanwhile, adult recipients of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the program most identified with welfare, make up less than 1 percent of all adults in the country; household recipients make up slightly over 1½ percent of all households, though only a fraction of those at best would be affected by any state waivers.

The point here is that depending upon how you count, each party is still trying to pander to between 98½ and 99⅔ percent of us, leaving most of us out of the cost side of the equation. Unfortunately for the country, the nation’s fiscal challenges confront us all!

Perhaps some of us count ourselves as moderates because we would be so bold as to tackle our budget situation by going after both the rich and the welfare recipients. We might find sympathy with the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party crowds at the same time.

There’s one tiny complication. Almost everyone receives significant benefits from government, and most pay significant taxes relative to their income, although how they do so (income, social insurance, state, local, fees) varies by the individual. At the end of the day, the middle 98 or 99 percent gets most government benefits and pays most government taxes.

So when the federal government collects only 60 cents for every dollar it spends, it is relatively easy for almost everyone to agree that that situation is both economically untenable and arithmetically unsustainable. It is much harder for us to admit that the problem cannot be solved by targeting the 1 percent on either end of the income scale and that we, too, have to chip in.

During a campaign, I don’t want or expect politicians to identify whose taxes would be increased or benefits cut. Such actions would be political suicide and unrealistic, to say the least. Broad-based reform requires more thoughtful analysis than is possible in an electoral process dominated by sound bites and tweets.

Campaigns and politicians, however, should at least identify the types of structures they would construct. God forbid that their media consultants tell them how to specify, piecemeal, the plumbing, engineering and architecture of governance involved. I simply want those running for office to admit that government taxes and spending programs fundamentally have to be restructured in ways that are likely to ask something from all of us, not just 1 or 2 percent.

Like many voters, I’m also tired of being pandered to. I know that political advisers and media consultants like to tell the candidates that they must make their supporters feel superior to the “undeserving” who cause all our problems. Maybe such advice is savvy when it comes to obtaining power or winning each party’s nomination. Given how sticky the polls have remained for both candidates in this race, however, I rather doubt its effectiveness in a general election.

And to what ultimate purpose? Elected officials find it hard to govern these days because, in fact, they have just been elected by treating most of us voters as if we are both selfish and stupid.

More and more Americans have tired of that message. We desperately seek and need leaders who will provide a road map for a mutual journey forward, one that makes progress because we, not just 1 percent of others, share in the load.

This column was originally published by the GailFosler Group LLC and is reposted with permission.

Planning for How to Present the Budget in 2013

If you are following the machinations over raising the nation’s debt limit, you know that both political parties expect much of the progress on the budget to be delayed until at least 2013—after the next major election. Not one compromise on the table has even come close to addressing the nation’s deficit issues head on. The big question is whether markets and the public will allow our elected officials to flounder around until 2013. Even if politicians can’t agree on adequate benefit cuts and tax increases to bring about a sustainable budget before then, their bigger mistake would be to avoid putting in place a process to make budgeting far more rational than it has been.

One crying need is to increase transparency and force more accountability on both the president and Congress. Our budget talks break down for lots of reasons, but one concerns how hard it is for our leaders to get on the same page and admit what this budget is doing to our economy. Getting there means considering what rule changes are needed and making them into laws so future elected officials have no choice but to budget more rationally. And that work must start now—not in 2013.

For example, for any future budget Congress could require any or all of the following:

  • The president must submit a budget that is balanced over an economic cycle no longer than eight years. If the Congressional Budget Office finds that the president’s submitted budget violates this rule, the budget would formally be returned to him on grounds that it fails to meet his responsibilities to Congress;
  • Any bill that increase the deficit (and any table that reports on the distribution of gains for those who get the additional spending or tax cuts) must formally make clear that the accounts are balanced through commensurate obligations on future taxpayers;
  • All bills that likely increases the long-term deficit —not just over 5 or 10 years— must be “scored” that way by the Congressional Budget Office (perhaps without full quantitative detail after 10 years), so it’s easier for Congress to subject such bills to special limitations on enactment;
  • In their initial presentations of any proposed or adopted budget, the president (through the Office of Management and Budget) and Congress (through the Congressional Budget Office) should list tax expenditures next to direct spending when categorizing the budget. That way, for instance, all housing subsidies, whether direct spending or tax subsidies, would be reported in one place;
  • Total health spending should be reported in the budget in one place, along with the effective tax rate on a tax base such as adjusted gross income that would be required to finance that spending annually without borrowing; and, my favorite,
  • The budget changes proposed by the president and passed by Congress would be reported first as year-to-year differences in spending and taxes—rather than the current method, which implies that Congress is responsible merely for new legislation and not for past legislative changes that it passively allowed to be implemented under its watch.

My point here isn’t to defend these particular changes or detail their implications. Nor is my list comprehensive or tested for support by Congress. In this short space, I simply want to suggest that progress in 2013 requires preparation now for more than grand bargaining sessions replete with triumphant winners and sore losers.

None of the rules would force any particular action. But each would add considerably to transparency and accountability. Many echo bipartisan suggestions from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (which—full disclosure here—I helped draft).

If Congress and the president’s political advisers think that debating rule changes like these can wait until 2013, along with the rest of the unresolved budget issues, they’re wrong. Planning ahead always has some advantage. But the politics here also play out better before than after the next election. Any rule aimed at increasing transparency in the future is as likely to constrain the other party as much as one’s own, so its chances of being accepted are greater when neither party can be certain that it won’t be the minority. After the election, only one party may have a strong desire to impose transparency and accountability on the other.

Many of these rules create no partisan advantage. It’s like agreeing to a set of rules for Monopoly before the game starts, instead of letting whoever becomes banker pay out as much money as she wants and whoever becomes the real estate mogul charge any rent. If the banker or property owners can set up rules after they obtain power, they are likely to game the system.

Budget policy isn’t just about who wins and who loses. It is about operating under clear, fair, and widely understood rules—including, for starters, those inculcating transparency and accountability. Only inertia or myopia—not politics in the nitty-gritty sense—stops the president and the speaker of the House, or the two heads of the budget committees in each house, or any other bipartisan group from putting forward a better set of rules than we have today for how future presidents and Congresses report on the budget.

Our Newly Elected Tax Collectors

Call it happenstance, but in the gospel proclaimed in many Christian churches on Sunday, October 24—about a week before the election—Jesus admonishes those “convinced of their own self-righteousness,” then makes a tax collector the hero in the parable cited. Actually, tax collectors seem to come out okay in a lot of religious stories; take the Buddhist one about the brahmin Dhananjani, an unscrupulous tax collector who exploited both the king and the public, yet still could at death attain a happier rebirth. Not to downplay these religious themes, but I couldn’t help seeing a secular twist: more than in any recent period, our newly elected representatives, many of whom ran on platforms of self-righteousness, are called to be our tax collectors.

Tax collectors have never been particularly popular. In ancient Israel, the Roman tax collector got to keep some of what he collected, leading to unfair assessments and corruption. Even though federal and state tax collectors today number among the most honest and dedicated people around, folks who work on the take-away side of the budget still usually get a bum rap, especially compared to those on government’s give-away side—the folks who send us checks and benefits. Neither the gospel nor the Buddhist story would have the same impact if the hero had been a provider of free well water.

Politicians prefer working the give-away side of the budget, too, even when they have to reduce spending or increase taxes—or borrow still more from China—by a dollar for every dollar they pass along. As John Shannon, a dean of public policy analysis once told me, no politician ever won office by promising to cut benefits or raise taxes.

But, guess what, all you politicians who just got elected in 2010? The nation’s long stretch of giveaways is ending soon. The temporary budget surplus of the late 1990s gave the government leeway to enact some tax cuts. But September 11 meant more defense spending. Then, a mild recession early in the 2000s led to more tax cuts. Meanwhile, extra drug benefits for the elderly passed unsupported by additional revenue. Ditto for a range of programs from education to child care. Then the Great Recession hit, requiring subsidies to get the banking system back in gear, as well as a stimulus to increase demand, encourage home buying, and deter layoffs. This year, the government expanded health insurance, but we’re already cutting back on collecting some of the money needed to pay for it.

Some of these actions were good, some bad. But for close to 15 years now, all major congressional actions have basically been giveaways. Now, even if you believe we need more temporary stimulus, the long-run budget is so out of whack that our newly elected officials must restore some sort of balance. That’s right, our elected officials must become tax collectors in the broadest sense of the word: they must ask us to give up something.

Campaigners have ignored this critical fact. Some have rumbled a bit about the deficit but rarely touched on what we should give up to deal with it. Somehow, at election time, the parable gets turned upside down. The self-righteous are extolled; the tax collectors (who would really say what price you and I have to pay) are put down. Appeals to us voters are essentially self-righteous too, telling us that we virtuous ones are being attacked by those who want our money. “They”—and we know who “they” are—want to increase our taxes, reduce our Social Security benefits, make us pay more of our health care costs, ignore our veterans, and stop repairing our highways—in other words, deprive us of those things we clearly have earned. “They” want to take away the rewards of our hard labors and the benefits we are so justly owed by government.

The great success of attack ads—and, let’s admit it, they work—is that they make us feel superior to the people attacked. How could we possibly vote for such idiots who are after our money and, indignity of indignities, also live such despicable private lives compared to us.

Still, at day’s start, many of us wake up with a bad taste in our mouths. Even if we didn’t really overindulge at last night’s political revelry, we’re not proud we took part. If our candidates won, we’re not really sure we trust them. If we backed the losers, we already know we don’t trust the winners. And, if we’re independent, we’re already trying to figure out how to throw the new bums out.

This predicament costs our government, our elected officials, and us dearly. Self-righteousness feeds on itself. The winning candidates start believing some of what their handlers told them to say during the campaign, that all the forces of evil are within the other political party. Not to be left behind, we voters are tempted by deepening cynicism. When we don’t get the policies we want—as we rarely do in a world of compromise—we punish and act superior to those forthright enough to make compromises.

This predicament costs our government, our elected officials, and us dearly. Self-righteousness feeds on itself. The winning candidates start believing some of what their handlers told them to say during the campaign, that all the forces of evil are within the other political party. Not to be left behind, we voters are tempted by deepening cynicism. When we don’t get the policies we want—as we rarely do in a world of compromise—we punish and act superior to those forthright enough to make compromises.

But that self-defeating attitude is doomed. If we don’t start paying for what we get, our children are going to be punished as we add to their debts, cut back on our investment in them, and threaten economic stagnation.

Instead, we must take the view that compromise means finding common political ground rather than simply and self-righteously protecting our own entitlements. We can no longer pretend that we are different from other Americans and somehow don’t have to contribute to reducing the gap between $30,000 of federal government spending per household and $20,000 in taxes.

And, yes, you, our newly minted leaders, have just won the honor of being our tax collectors.

Joe Plumbs Press Predilections

Poor Joe the Plumber. His fame has been established, but at what cost? Steve Weisman, a former New York Times reporter and colleague of mine, predicted that within an hour of that fateful presidential debate, Joe would find hundreds of press people camped on his lawn.

Not long after Joe achieved household fame, the BBC asked me to join a talk show. I was told that we would “plumb to the depth” of budget issues. The moderator, however, could never get beyond asking me what Joe the Plumber told us about the candidates’ plans. The incident of Joe, I replied, said less about what any candidate proposed than about the silly way we debate the issues and dodge how we pay for anything. Typically the government’s real balance sheet is ignored.

When running for office, politicians need to identify winners. Who is going to get a benefit increase or a tax cut? Every dollar of giveaway promised by a politician, however, must be matched by a dollar of takeaway: a tax increase or a spending cut. What flows out must first flow in. Politicians have been taught—and they are probably right, given the way we vote—that the surest way to lose an election is to identify how to pay for a promise.

Meanwhile, the press thrives on controversy. Larry Haas, a senior communications official in the Clinton White House, warns future government executives that their relationship with the media will be adversarial and that negative stories are more likely to make page one or to get on air in a news broadcast. White House press similarly have made clear to me that their editors ask first for controversy, only second for substance. What could stir more anxiety and debate than to identify a set of losers somewhere—some of the people who might be asked to pay for all those promised benefits and tax cuts?

Many times in the last few weeks, I have read or heard media stories about how this or that comparison of some tax or health policy makes clear the distinctions among the candidates. This simply is wrong. As long as candidates only tell us about one side of the balance sheet, we can only guess at how everything will come together. Are they going to simply dab grease on some fittings or grab for the Big Yank puller among their tools? In other words, logic tells us that elected officials eventually have to identify who pays for their promises, pass those burdens onto future generations through higher deficits, or give up on those promises.

What would a candidate really do if elected? We simply can’t do much more than guess at campaign time. Sure, one might say that he won’t increase taxes, while the other says he would never reduce some retirement benefit. But that’s just more pandering that leaves us pondering. It narrows the potential class of losers, but it still doesn’t tell us who is going to pay.

Aha, when we finally hear about Joe the Plumber, supposedly we get a clue. But how informative is that morsel? Joe the Plumber, at best, represents only one of many classes of people who will have to pay more taxes or get fewer benefits. (Of course, Joe turned out not be a licensed plumber after all, and not a taxpayer who probably would pay more, but that’s another story.) Indeed, probably the only thing we know—again, more from logic and accounting identities than from anything revealed to us—is that the greater the amount of winnings that politicians promise the public, the larger the set of losses they will need to impose elsewhere.

A favorite tool of plumbers is the Smart Dumbell (sic). Unfortunately, elections encourage us to be “smart dumbbells” who think we know a lot when we learn very little. Scampering after the press to Joe’s house doesn’t really help us learn very much, even if it is great media.

An Issue of Democracy

I know. It’s campaign time. Time for our politicians to promise us more and more. Of course, it is always someone else who will pick up the tab. Senator Russell Long’s famous quip still holds: “Don’t tax you. Don’t tax me. Tax the man behind the tree.”

Today “the man” is increasingly the young, who are not only asked to pay more for others and get less for themselves, but who are increasingly being denied their fundamental democratic rights to share equally in deciding just what type of government we should have.

In normal times, additional promises at election time would be okay, even proper. Many of our government institutions—including the tax structure and health subsidies—do need fixing, and the country should have an open debate about how. But these aren’t normal times.

The mantra of both Republicans and Democrats today is that no politician can win office by being totally honest about the balance sheet—those spending cuts and tax increases required to pay not just for their new spending increases and tax cut proposals, but all those promises arising from past legislation.

Oh, the Democrats tell us they will tax the rich a bit more, and the Republicans tell us they will eliminate waste. But, in truth, the middle class is so large that it mainly pays for whatever promises do materialize.

The threat is not simply to the economy. Today, our fundamental democratic institutions are threatened in a very new way. While it has become increasingly difficult to deny the vote de jure on the basis of property, gender, or race, our laws now discriminate de facto against the young.

At its core, democracy is about equal rights to vote—and have your representatives vote—on the nation’s current priorities. But many recent laws attempt to deny us—and, even more so, our children—the opportunity to determine those priorities.

The reason is simple, but its effects are profound. Never before in U.S. history have so many promises been made to so many people for so many years into the future. Every additional promise, no matter what its merit, only attempts to tie that fiscal straightjacket tighter around future voters.

If our tax laws merely stay the same from 2006 to 2010, for instance, government revenues would rise by several hundred billion dollars. But guess what? Most of those revenue increases are already committed, mainly to the growing costs of our current health and retirement programs.

It gets worse. In a little more than a decade, we’ll likely have around $1 trillion more in annual revenues, yet under current law almost all of that growth will have been pre-allocated without so much as a nod from the existing or future Congresses.

Until those issues are dealt with up front, new promises by our presidential candidates are largely puffs in the wind.

Do you believe we should spend more on health care for the nonelderly? Sorry, nothing left for that. Help the elderly poor or those in their last years of life? Sorry, we’ve already promised an increasing share of revenues to younger and healthier seniors. How about tax cuts to restrain government growth? Sorry, tax revenues won’t even cover the promises already on record. Spend a little to fix our educational system? Give me a break. The share of spending on children is already scheduled to decline to help pay for an even larger share for groups already getting the lion’s share of government spending.

To be clear, the issue here is not whether political promises are for things silly or sane. U.S. history is replete with gut-wrenching and nation-changing debates on how government should wield its tax and spending powers. Those who defended Henry Clay’s “American System” believed in expanding public works into ever-more territories. Those opposing Clay considered this form of spending corrupt and objected to the tariffs used to finance them.

Jumping forward about a century, most of Franklin Roosevelt’s Depression-era spending priorities aimed to help Americans get jobs and to help support the unemployed. Families who weathered that longest of downturns have been forever grateful as a result. Many family histories, including mine, include stories of relatives who got public service jobs that tided them over.

Economists see it differently, crediting better monetary and fiscal policy, largely following the war effort, for ending the Depression.

Still, in most of the 200-plus years since the American republic was founded, most spending and tax debates were over projects of the day. They weren’t about controlling what government priorities would be in 50 years. Whether worthwhile or horrible, precedent-setting or routine, new laws and programs weren’t designed to predetermine government’s direction for decades to come.

Given the fix we’re in now, the debate over taxing and spending will not and should not end. The crux of the debates from here on out must be distinguishing between laws written for today and mandates for tomorrow. Saddling distant tomorrows with growing commitments forecloses other potential uses of the revenues that come with a growing economy. It takes democracy out of the hands of citizens, especially the young, who can be counted on to rebel—as some already are—against paying for priorities they didn’t help pick.