Just in case you had been suffering delusions that the Republicans have improved on basic arithmetic or responsible governance, House Speaker John Boehner and presidential aspirant Mitt Romney on Tuesday made sure to disabuse you of that notion. As both men pandered to the base on deficit reduction while foreswearing tax increases, they reinforced the central Republican narrative of our age: Somebody else can pay for the mess we made. Somebody -- as in those losers who can't afford memberships at our golf club.
Boehner delivered that message in a warning that he would again engage in brinksmanship later this year when Congress and the White House return to negotiations over lifting the debt ceiling and extending the tax cuts George W. Bush bestowed on wealthy Americans. You will surely recall how the last such negotiations went down: Boehner and his fellow Republicans held to threats not to go along without draconian spending cuts -- a line they maintained so rigidly that they convinced much of the planet that we Americans had lost our minds along with our calculators, leading to Uncle Sam's credit rating getting dinged.
"When the time comes, I will again insist on my simple principle of cuts and reforms greater than the debt limit increase," Boehner told a gathering in Washington sponsored by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, an institution dedicated to propagating deficit alarmism. "This is the only avenue I see right now to force the elected leadership of this country to solve our structural fiscal imbalance."
Translation: "I am perfectly willing to threaten the national interest again by driving us rapidly toward the cliff of fiscal insanity and sovereign debt default. I am perfectly content to demand that debts -- run up via disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus a financial crisis whose buildup enriched people who fill my campaign coffers with cash -- get paid for on the backs of poor people, public school students, retirees and others who did not share in the festivities of the financial leverage orgy, because it allows me to to posture as being virtuous: I am holding the line on taxes, addition and subtraction be damned."
Romney, smelling an opportunity to pile on the pander wagon while donning a blue plaid shirt in Iowa, told reporters that he, too, was adamant that the deficit would have to be squared without any new taxes. "You do not owe Washington a bigger share of your paycheck," he said.
Unfortunately, most of you do, and there is no way around that for anyone serious about closing the nation's fiscal gap. Simon Johnson and James Kwak have laid all this out nicely, and you can dip in to their work here, but the distilled version is this: Our debt problems are enormous if we keep dodging them, and entirely manageable if get back to sensible tax policy, through scrapping the reckless tax cuts engineered by George W. Bush and returning to the tax rates of Ronald Reagan's time. If we do that, we can square our books, invest in job-creating growth, improve public education while making higher education more affordable, and we can preserve the government institutions that ordinary people count on -- not least, Medicare and Social Security.
We can do that, or we can wind up like California, now staring at a $16 billion hole in its budget and making plans to dismantle much of what has made the Golden State the admiration of the world for decades: an excellent and inclusive community college system, world-class research instituions, public lands for public enjoyment and a prodigious safety net to help more vulnerable people in tough times.
Gov. Jerry Brown understands math, and he is urging voters to approve a tax increase via a ballot measure in November. But if he doesn't get that increase, he understands that math still holds, and the cutting will continue.
In Washington, the Obama administration has helpfully pursued tax increases, while adhering to the fiction that only the rich have to pay, while the Republicans have somehow managed to portray themselves as fiscally responsible even as they promise that no one ever has to pay taxes. This is reprehensible, and it is bleeding the country.
The public cannot be expected to stand up and demand to be taxed more. Human nature says otherwise. Getting our house in order will require straight talk from leadership, something that continues to be sorely lacking in the pander-fest that masquerades as a public policy debate.