THE BLOG
08/09/2007 02:29 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Conservatives' Newest Bridge to Nowhere

In the wake of the Minnesota bridge disaster, conservatives like Denver Post columnist David Harsanyi are frantically trying to avoid a debate over taxes and budget priorities. Locally here in Denver, the motivation is obvious: They are likely gearing up for one of their slash-and-burn campaigns - this one against Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper's (D) bold ballot initiative push for more infrastructure investment. Nationally, it's all part of a diversion game. They don't want to have this debate because it will be another one that both shows the deficiencies of Grover Norquist/Newt Gingrich-style free market fundamentalism and that has proven to be a political loser in recent years - even in states considered Republican strongholds. They would rather try to exploit the tragedy as a supposed rationale for continuing their anti-tax, anti-government agenda that has helped erode the safety and durability of the very public infrastructure that helps sustain our economy.

Conservative pundits and politicians really do think we - the public - are just flat-out stupid. They expect us to ignore all the basic, undebatable facts as laid out, for instance, in this recent Legislative Alert from the Progressive States Network (whose board I serve on) that details just how right-wing free market fundamentalism has put our nation's basic infrastructure at risk (by the way - sign up for regular PSN dispatches here). We are expected to simply laugh off the report from those supposed radical communists at the American Society of Civil Engineers that shows we face roughly $1.6 trillion in infrastructure needs. We are supposed to ignore the fact that our major economic competitor, China, is spending 9 percent of its GDP on infrastructure investments, while we spend less than 2 percent of our GDP on the same priorities - a significant decline since free market fundamentalism was ushered in by the Norquist-Gingrich monster. Yes, as Rudy Giuliani asserted recently with a straight face, we should believe in conservatives' newest bridge to nowhere: The Laffer Curve-ish concept that actually enacting MORE tax cuts for the superwealthy will fix our infrastructure.
In the wake of the Minnesota bridge disaster, conservatives like Denver Post columnist David Harsanyi are frantically trying to avoid a debate over taxes and budget priorities. Locally here in Denver, the motivation is obvious: They are likely gearing up for one of their slash-and-burn campaigns - this one against Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper's (D) bold ballot initiative push for more infrastructure investment. Nationally, it's all part of a diversion game. They don't want to have this debate because it will be another one that both shows the deficiencies of Grover Norquist/Newt Gingrich-style free market fundamentalism and that has proven to be a political loser in recent years - even in states considered Republican strongholds. They would rather try to exploit the tragedy as a supposed rationale for continuing their anti-tax, anti-government agenda that has helped erode the safety and durability of the very public infrastructure that helps sustain our economy.

Conservative pundits and politicians really do think we - the public - are just flat-out stupid. They expect us to ignore all the basic, undebatable facts as laid out, for instance, in this recent Legislative Alert from the Progressive States Network (whose board I serve on) that details just how right-wing free market fundamentalism has put our nation's basic infrastructure at risk (by the way - sign up for regular PSN dispatches here). We are expected to simply laugh off the report from those supposed radical communists at the American Society of Civil Engineers that shows we face roughly $1.6 trillion in infrastructure needs. We are supposed to ignore the fact that our major economic competitor, China, is spending 9 percent of its GDP on infrastructure investments, while we spend less than 2 percent of our GDP on the same priorities - a significant decline since free market fundamentalism was ushered in by the Norquist-Gingrich monster. Yes, as Rudy Giuliani asserted recently with a straight face, we should believe in conservatives' newest bridge to nowhere: The Laffer Curve-ish concept that actually enacting MORE tax cuts for the superwealthy will fix our infrastructure.

But see, I'm a reasonable guy, so I'm willing to try to meet conservatives half way. Let's say for a moment that you are an anti-tax zealot and just oppose any effort to raise taxes for society's most basic priorities. Well, ask yourself, would you be willing to at least collect the taxes that are already owed?

I ask this question because yes - while America's infrastructure crumbles, states and the federal government are leaving billions of dollars on the table by refusing to enforce basic tax laws already on the books. In Minnesota alone, the state government reports that the gap between taxes owed and taxes paid is roughly $700 million. Federally, the numbers are astounding. The IRS reports that the government doesn"t collect roughly $350 billion a year in taxes that are owed. Do an even slightly better job of collecting these taxes and we could tamp down tax increases while still making some real strides in tackling our infrastructure needs.

Unfortunately, I can answer my own question by looking at the record. No, most Republicans and conservative Democrats in American politics - whether they are pundits or politicians - don't want to make sure existing tax laws are enforced. They are great with the law and order rhetoric when it comes to terrorists, but when it comes to making corporate executives and the superwealthy follow basic tax laws, the rhetoric disappears. As President Bush himself declared in 2004, we don't need to really enforce tax laws on the books because "the really rich people figure out how to dodge taxes anyway." That rationale has been a big justification for the IRS "to eliminate the jobs of nearly half of the lawyers at the Internal Revenue Service who audit tax returns of some of the wealthiest Americans," according to the New York Times.

The rationale also trickles down by setting the stage for the kind of thing that happens in Montana to happen everywhere. Big Sky country has one of the largest tax gaps per capita in America, leaving almost a quarter billion dollars on the table in uncollected taxes. When Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) and progressive Democratic legislators tried to pass legislation to beef up tax enforcement, Republicans went to the wall to kill the legislation. Meanwhile, Montana"s U.S. Senator Max Baucus (D) continues to issue press releases railing on the tax gap, while quietly using his position as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee to stop House-passed legislation to crackdown on corporations that hide their money in offshore tax havens.

So here's what I say to conservative pundits like Harsanyi: Give us a shout when you are ready to support a real law and order agenda on issues like taxes so that we have the resources to fund basic societal priorities. Until then, us responsible folk who live in the real world of fact-based budget analysis will be laughing at your anti-tax chest-thumping and anti-"nanny state" nonsense for what it is: A sad joke.

Cross-posted from Working Assets