It's bad politics to leave people starving, without health care, without education, and without hope. On the other hand, funding programs for poor people runs counter to Republican ideology. The solution for the right? Cut taxes, run up deficits, plead poverty, then impose austerity. It's not their fault, they will say—they're just out of cash!
Last week, the Senate passed a regressive tax bill intended to drastically lower taxes for the wealthy. I've written about the plan's consequences for disabled people and higher education, but there's also the problem of the deficit. Non-partisan scoring suggests the GOP plans will add $1.4 trillion to the deficit over 10 years, and reporters generally present this shortfall as a problem for Republicans. It's not. Running up the deficit isn't a bug, but a feature. Debt allows them to make the case for austerity without taking responsibility for the pain.
Republicans, of course, spent the Clinton and Obama administrations regularly complaining about the deficit, then ignoring deficits when they took office. We sometimes call this behavior hypocrisy, but I see it as central to the GOP plan. The problem, for Republicans, is that people generally like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other expensive programs, at least when they imagine taking advantage of those benefits themselves. There's even broadening support for expanding these benefits, with 62 percent of the country now in favor of some form of single-payer health care. But thanks to this tax plan, Republicans can plead poverty going forward, and refuse to act on pressing social needs.
I'm afraid of what comes next, not just because, as a freelancer and educator, I'm worried about my specific tax burden, but more broadly because self-imposed austerity always ends up hurting those who depend on the state. Moreover, I'm specifically concerned because I've been watching the GOP at work in Kansas and Oklahoma.
In 2012, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback decided to boost his state's economy by going all-in on the supply side theory that lower taxes leads to more economic growth. Economic growth leads to higher wages. Higher wages, taxed at the lower rates, still produce sufficient tax revenue (because there's more money all around) to keep the government running. That theory has resoundingly failed.
Brownback, for example, cut "pass-through" taxes (for the sort of business beloved by President Donald Trump) to zero. He and his allies predicted a windfall of business activity, assuring voters that they'd have more income to tax as a result. Instead, as reported by the Brookings Institute this summer, all kinds of income were re-classified as resulting from "pass-through" accounts, thereby sheltering most gains. The state budget collapsed and, rather than re-raising taxes, Brownback responded by making savage cuts to government services. Schools, in particular, have struggled to stay afloat. Attempts at fixing the budget have stalled in the state house. Disability services are inadequate. As Kansas embraces austerity, rather than fixing its revenue problem, its citizens suffer.
Oklahoma has a similar problem. The state's tax reductions weren't quite as radical as those in Kansas, but after a frenzied wave of Tea Party policy destroyed their budget, state services are on the verge of collapsing. The state is closing nursing homes, slashing Medicaid, and shutting down community-based supports. Recently, 21,000 Oklahomans were told that the program providing home-based care was closing from lack of funds.
Too often, folks on the left (and people who care about math) respond to these budget crises by saying, We told you tax cuts don't pay for themselves!—as if by pointing out the flawed numbers we could ever dissuade the GOP from their course. Alas, exploding deficits aren't a mere unanticipated consequence of right-wing tax policy. They end up justifying the destruction of the modern state's social safety net.
The campaign to cut has already begun. During the tax debate, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah took to the floor to talk about the Children's Health Insurance Program that the GOP let expire this fall. He said that he'd like to fund it, but "it's got to be done the right way. ... The reason CHIP's having trouble is because we don't have money anymore." In fact, we have plenty of money, but deficits enable the GOP plausible cover to cut programs they don't like without seeming like monsters. Conservatives shrug and say they'd like to help sick kids, but there's just no money.
Next on the table, according to Senator Marco Rubio, are medicare and Social Security. For the modern GOP, if they succeed with the current tax bill, the exploding deficit won't be a sign of their failures. Instead, debt will provide a new cudgel with which to pummel Americans in need.