The Enduring Appeal of Tax and Spend

Last night, CBS News took an online poll of people watching the President’s State of the Union speech, and came up with 91% approval for his proposals. 

Of course the methodology is absurd, but it’s still not surprising a strong positive result would be obtained in a flash poll.  For one thing, every President’s State of the Union speech is presented to voters as a big deal, and filled with bipartisan applause moments, such as salutes to the troops, or last night’s expression of sympathy for absent Representative Gabrielle Giffords.  The whole idea is to put the audience in a good mood.  There’s nothing stunning about a flash poll that indicates it worked.

In this particular case, there is also the enduring appeal of tax-and-spend liberalism to consider.  One of the pitfalls for conservatives is the assumption this style of governance has been somehow discredited by our new focus on deficits and fiscal irresponsibility.  That’s not true, and it never will be.

Anyone considering the State of the Union speech rationally is struck by the jarring contrast between talk of spending freezes and deficit reduction, followed immediately by a gigantic spending spree that would cost hundreds of billions of dollars.  The only offsetting revenue increase mentioned in the speech was ending the “tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans” Democrats wail endlessly about.  Such a tax increase would raise only a tiny fraction of the new spending Obama proposed, never mind reducing our already vast national debt.

A lot of people simply are not rational about such things.  One reason is the magic word “investment,” a crutch used relentlessly by Bill Clinton back in the 90s, and President Obama last night.  Investment conjures an expectation of return.  A company that “invests” isn’t spending money, it is earning money.

This is a useful conceptual shield for the Obama agenda.  A Fox News graphic this morning said “President Obama proposes spending freeze & new investments.”  That may sound like an Orwellian joke to you, but a lot of people see it exactly that way.

Of course, back when Bill Clinton started making his “investments” – presented in no less glowing terms than Obama’s – the national debt was about $4 trillion.  It stands at over fourteen trillion dollars today.  Obviously those earlier “investments” didn’t earn a very good return.  How eager would you be to buy more shares in a company that used your previous investments to triple its debt?  Especially when it just squandered a trillion dollars, to almost no visible effect, in the previous year?

People still love this talk because it showers them with benefits, paid for by faceless and evil rich people.  No one responding to that CBS poll understands the economics of high-speed rail.  They just think it would be neat if government conjured bullet trains out of thin air.  None of them are thinking about the reality of building their lives around expensive “clean energy” cars that only run for a couple of hours a day.  They heard the President talk about cars that run on water and sunshine, and they think that sounds neat, especially since it just cost them fifty bucks to gas up the family SUV.

Tax-and-spend also has a hypnotic appeal because it absolves people of individual responsibility.  If only Big Government can build the future, then no aspect of the present is your fault.  All you have to do is vote for the right people, and they’ll “win the future” for you.  Our current malaise is due to the wrong evil corporations receiving tax subsidies.  Once those subsidies are shifted to noble “clean energy” companies – which just happen to be run by Barack Obama’s best friends – everything will come up roses. 

A little mild scolding about doing more to make your kids study and earn good grades is nothing compared to the responsibility you would shoulder by admitting the public schools are fatally broken, and you should be carefully choosing a competitive school under a privatized education system.  Man, that would be a lot of responsibility for parents to shoulder.  Much easier to just applaud when the President says the solution is throwing more money at the Department of Education.  After all, you won’t have to pay for it – he didn’t say he’d be raising your taxes to hire that hundred thousand new teachers.

Of course this junk always wins applause.  We underestimate its appeal at our peril.  Tax-and-spend means promises without implications, and implications are hard to think about.  The gift bag of Big Government is threadbare, but a lot of people are still ready to believe a few more goodies are hidden inside.  Shopping lists of social programs are always made to sound hopeful… but if “hope” means faith in the government, then faith in yourself becomes equivalent to despair.  Faith in government is much easier.  All it requires of you is applause.