With the possibility of the government defaulting on its debt looming, it’s worth critically examining some of the more popular far-right talking points.
Myth 1: Americans are Overtaxed
The basic Republican argument is that out-of-control spending is driving deficits (we’ll get to that below) and that higher taxes would destroy the economy. Republicans give the impression that taxes have never been higher. However, in reality, tax revenues as a percentage of GDP in the U.S. have remained remarkably stable over the past 40 years. In other OECD countries, tax revenues have increased by about 10%. It’s highly unlikely that taxes are holding back the recovery and suspect that cutting taxes for wealthy people would do anything other than simply drive deficits even higher. Research suggests that tax rates have to be around 60 – 70% before there is any impact on economic growth (the highest marginal tax bracket right now is 40%).
Myth 2: Government Spending is Out of Control
What about government spending? The IMF data on government spending as a percentage of GDP are clear: not only is government spending in the U.S. relatively low by international standards (the average among the 34 countries surveyed was 43% of GDP, in the U.S. government spending is 41% of GDP). Government spending in the U.S. is lower than the austere Germany and is not projected to increase dramatically over the next four years.
Myth 3: Democrats Don’t Want to Negotiate
Really? There have been three deficit deals so far, the “fiscal cliff” deal, the sequester and the Budget Control Act. In each case, Republicans (who want lower spending and lower taxes) have gotten what they wanted while the Democrats (who prefer higher revenue) have gotten almost nil.
A small faction of Tea Party members have sabotaged the national dialogue from the beginning. Throughout negotiations with Obama and Biden, Boehner and Cantor constantly cited their rabid tea party caucus as the underlying reason for their intransigence. From the beginning Obama has put forward a simple offer for a grand bargain: entitlement reform, sustainable cuts to defense spending and comprehensive tax reform that raises revenue. This is what essentially every deficit commission (Domenici-Rivlin, Bowles-Simpson and the “supercommittee”) has ended up recommending, and every time these deals were shot down by Republicans (every time citing revenues as their bone of contention). The problem isn’t that Democrats won’t negotiate, it’s that they won’t let Republicans hold the economy hostage in exchange for unilateral concessions.
Myth 4: The Problem is Lazy People Sapping Off Government
The truth is actually far simpler. There is one major driver to U.S. deficits: healthcare. Unless we reign in the excessive cost growth, we’ll have to savagely cut almost everything. To see how bad healthcare is in the U.S. consider that each year the healthcare system wastes $750 billion dollars (for comparison: total federal discretionary spending was $1.3 trillion in 2012).
Dean Baker and Peter Rosnick have shown that if U.S. healthcare costs were in line with healthcare costs of other developed countries the U.S. federal deficit as a percentage of GDP would decrease over the next 80 years.
Healthcare costs are the most important driver of the deficit, and the Affordable Care Act represents a significant step towards reigning in healthcare costs. This isn’t just liberal propaganda, it’s the assertion of non-partisan groups like The Urban Institute, Kaiser Family Foundation and CBO. Certainly the recession has played a large role in the slowdown in healthcare cost growth, but the Affordable Care Act is also responsible, only three years after being signed into law.
The reason Republicans want to bargain over the debt-ceiling is because they want unilateral concessions from the Democrats. They’re not concerned about deficits or debt or economic growth. They are fighting an all-out ideological war on government, and we’re all pawns on their chess board.