David Brooks does the David Brooks equivalent of losing his temper
A normal Republican Party would seize the opportunity to put a long-term limit on the growth of government. It would seize the opportunity to put the country on a sound fiscal footing. It would seize the opportunity to do these things without putting any real crimp in economic growth.
The party is not being asked to raise marginal tax rates in a way that might pervert incentives. On the contrary, Republicans are merely being asked to close loopholes and eliminate tax expenditures that are themselves distortionary.
This, as I say, is the mother of all no-brainers.
But we can have no confidence that the Republicans will seize this opportunity. That's because the Republican Party may no longer be a normal party. Over the past few years, it has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative.
The members of this movement do not accept the logic of compromise, no matter how sweet the terms. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch in order to cut government by a foot, they will say no. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch to cut government by a yard, they will still say no.
The members of this movement do not accept the legitimacy of scholars and intellectual authorities. A thousand impartial experts may tell them that a default on the debt would have calamitous effects, far worse than raising tax revenues a bit. But the members of this movement refuse to believe it.
The members of this movement have no sense of moral decency. A nation makes a sacred pledge to pay the money back when it borrows money. But the members of this movement talk blandly of default and are willing to stain their nation's honor.
The members of this movement have no economic theory worthy of the name. Economists have identified many factors that contribute to economic growth, ranging from the productivity of the work force to the share of private savings that is available for private investment. Tax levels matter, but they are far from the only or even the most important factor.
But to members of this movement, tax levels are everything. Members of this tendency have taken a small piece of economic policy and turned it into a sacred fixation. They are willing to cut education and research to preserve tax expenditures. Manufacturing employment is cratering even as output rises, but members of this movement somehow believe such problems can be addressed so long as they continue to worship their idol.
Over the past week, Democrats have stopped making concessions. They are coming to the conclusion that if the Republicans are fanatics then they better be fanatics, too.
Why can't they take the deal?
There's one semi-fair reason, which is that the Democrats and the GOP leadership got entirely too cute with the last round of negotiations, finding a bunch of fake "cuts"--and then bragging that they hadn't really cut anything. Their fans in the commentariat joined in the gloating. So this time, the serious cutters aren't going to settle for anything except massive cuts, right now--they don't trust the other parties in the deal to carry through on anything less draconians. Nice job guys.
Still, that's not enough of the excuse. I am getting the same sinking feeling that Brooks is having--that there is a sizeable faction on the right, and worse, in the GOP caucus, that is willing to default rather than make any deal at all. In fact, I think it's worse than Brooks suggests. It would be bad enough if these people were simply against higher taxes, because then you might persuade them by pointing out that if we default, we're probably going to end up with higher taxes, right now, in order to close the current gap between spending and tax revenue.
But when I point this out, the response in my comments and email and twitter is "Fine, I'll accept higher taxes, as long as they come with radical changes in spending." The BATNA (best alternative to negotiated agreement) is default on either our debt, or entitlements like Social Security that people have planned their lives around; the Democrats properly view this as a disaster. But I'm hearing from people who seem to think that it's better than raising one thin new dime in taxes. This makes me very much afraid of where this is headed.
The political logic is infantile. The American public does not want you to cut Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security. There is no monopartisan substitute for persuading people to agree with you. Just as the Democrats spent way too much time reading their own press releases on ObamaCare, only to find that their cherished legislation was instantly at risk of dismemberment by legislative and court challenges. Imagine that the GOP forces through an all-cuts deal--or forces the country into default? What's the next logical step?
Why, probably that an angry nation sends more Democrats to Congress (and Obama back to the White House), where they happily "restore" the programs that "brutal" Republicans tried to "gut" with "draconian" cuts. Those Democrats will probably get elected to office by lying about the possibilities for closing the budget deficit via nothing but tax increases on the "rich". So what? Their GOP predecessors got there by spinning fairy tales about the massive dynamic effects of changes in tax policy.
This is why the budget deals that have succeeded generally had bipartisan support. If one party tries to do things all their own way, well, the other party will promptly be elected to undo some of those changes. I can admire someone who's willing to be a one-term congressman in order to do something big and important. But what's the point if your big, important legislation doesn't live much longer than your political career?
If the GOP doesn't cut a deal sometime pretty soon, we're either going to default on our debt (hello, financial crisis, unemployment spike, substantial and immediate drop in GDP, followed by an angry mob of voters descending on their polling places with pitchforks), or we're going to cut a bunch of programs that beneficiaries are very attached to. (Hello, angry mob of seniors descending on their representatives with machetes.) There is no deal that they can cut which does not include raising more revenue; the Democrats aren't going to be the only people offering compromise, and I don't blame them.
Now, maybe Brooks and I have this all wrong, and the GOP is just putting on one hell of a show for negotiating purposes. I sure hope that's true. But I very much fear it isn't.
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is a columnist at Bloomberg View
and a former senior editor at The Atlantic.
Her new book is The Up Side of Down