Needing a victory to validate their majorities, congressional Republicans have chosen not to emulate Shakespeare’s Henry V before Agincourt. He advocated stiffening the sinews, summoning up the blood and lending the eye a terrible aspect. The Republicans would rather define victory down.
What began with a bang of promises of comprehensive tax reform will end with a whimper: The only large change will be to the national debt. Consider a small proposal — repeal of the estate tax. It will be paid by an estimated 5,500 people dying this year, raising about $20 billion — a pittance in the $3.88 trillion budget. Repeal’s significance would be philosophic rather than economic.
In 1975, Phillies pitcher Tug McGraw explained what he would do with his $75,000 salary: “Ninety percent I’ll spend on good times, women and Irish whiskey. The other 10 percent I’ll probably waste.”
If you work hard, make a pile, then choose to squander it on dissipations, go ahead, it’s a free country. But try to pass the pile to progeny, grasping government will intervene. Ending the estate tax would extinguish the government’s delusion that it has the duty and skill to prevent the intergenerational transmission of family advantages (of which, money matters much less than transfers of social capital — habits and aptitudes, which government cannot redistribute).
Desperate to propitiate impatient constituents, Republicans say this is no time (actually, there never is a time) to fret about the national debt, which was $9 trillion a decade ago and passed $20 trillion two months ago, having increased 22 percentage points under the Republican president who preceded the present one. House Speaker Paul Ryan says do not worry, “We finally have a president who is willing to actually balance the budget.” Ryan underestimates the president, who has promised to eliminate not just the budget deficit but the national debt in just eight years, without touching entitlements.
Beneath the froth of political discord, America’s granite-like harmony persists. The comparatively superficial discord distracts attention from this bipartisan consensus: We shall have a generous entitlement state and not pay for it. Instead, we shall offload onto future generations a substantial portion of the costs of our current consumption of government. As Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute naughtily reminds us, during half a century of Republican rhetoric of frugality, 1960 to 2010, entitlement spending grew 8 percent faster under Republican presidents than under Democrats.
When the president said tax reform is “going to be so easy,” he overlooked this fact: The tax code’s baroque complexity that demands radical reform makes the code almost impervious to such reform: Every provision was put there to placate a muscular faction or to create a grateful faction. Republicans should have made the case for large reforms that annoy democratically — almost everyone, simultaneously — but for a large purpose. The aim should have been a revenue system that stops subordinating economic efficiency to social engineering and rent-seeking.