Tiny compromise is poor weapon in war on calamity


October 09, 1990|By Russell Baker

THE GREAT Compromise dealt with slavery and was so important that history books still write it in capital letters. Now we have the small compromise, and small is almost too big a word for it.

Some might call it tiny, considering all the somber talk in the air about impending national calamity.

People facing calamity surely want their leaders to do something RussellBakermore dynamic than raising the price of beer, cigarettes, gasoline and health insurance.

Yet that's about all that was contained in the budget deal between President Bush and the Democratic leaders.

Yes, there were also new taxes on furs and cars in the $30,000 price range, but still -- this is war on calamity?

The peril is economic. Awareness of it is what's behind the whining about Japan's supremacy and what makes best sellers of pamphleteers' warnings that it's all up with the U.S.A.

What to do? The obvious answer: Get out of debt.

You usually get out of debt by cutting costs, increasing income and using the savings and added revenue to pay the bill collector.

Government, however, can't do it this way anymore.

Why? Because of the politicians' terror of raising the taxes needed to pay for all the things taxpayers demand. In the 1980s taxes became political death.

The Republic, which was born crying "No taxation without representation," began demanding "Representation without taxation."

Politicians who opposed the latest increase in Social Security benefits were doomed just as surely as politicians who proposed new taxes to pay for it.

Not surprisingly, politicians discovered the wisdom of giving the voters more while fighting all efforts to pay for the new boons with real money.

Needing a philosophy to justify themselves, the politicians were blessed by the arrival of the Reagan economists bearing a theory worthy of the Wizard of Oz.

The way to fill the Treasury to overflowing, they said, was not by raising taxes, but -- get this, folks! -- by cutting taxes.

This would free so much money for the private market that business would boom and tax collections rise despite lowered rates.

Here was a politician's dream of Paradise. Despite the much-ballyhooed impending calamity, politicians still cannot give it up.

Nor can you blame them. Though many may now privately concede that the theory didn't work, the public still seems to detest returning to the old idea that when governments distribute boons somebody has to pay.

Chief among those determined to keep shunning reality has been Bush.

In 1980, before becoming Reagan's vice president, Bush described the Reagan argument that tax cuts would enrich the nation as "voodoo economics."

Eight years later, though, Americans were so wedded to the get-rich-by-cutting-taxes theory that he offered them his "read my lips" pledge of "no new taxes" as assurance that he would never abandon the tried and beloved old policy simply because it had failed.

Earlier this year, finally confronting the potential calamity, he agreed to consider tax increases.

The deal defeated last week -- the tiny compromise, if you like -- was the result. It was denounced by some Democrats as a soak-the-poor budget, but this overstates the case.

Weighed against the potential national calamity -- loss of Number Oneness, for heaven's sake! -- the taxes involved were too slight to constitute even a good soaking. It was only a dunking.

Sure, the poorer classes would continue to bear the heaviest tax burden, as in the Reagan years, but it was more accurate to call it a dunk-the-poor budget.

You might have expected conservative Republicans to congratulate the president for his cunning in persuading the Democrats to join him in this assault on their natural constituency. But no.

The ineffable Newt Gingrich, House Republican whip and the very embodiment of "Representation With No Taxation Whatsoever," promptly said he and all who still cherished the old Reagan way thought the president had gone too far. And so they voted against him.

Perhaps the conservative defection will have long-term benefit for the country.

Suppose it persuades Bush that nothing he does will ever win him conservative support.

Gosh, it might persuade him to give the country a break by dropping the conservative Dan Quayle from the ticket in 1992.

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