In the Fiscal Debate, a Little Symbolism Can Go a Long Way

The sorry truth is that we Americans seem like the addict who keeps saying “I can quit any time,” yet doesn’t cut back. So what else might we say to frame this problem in a more useful way?

“GRANT me chastity and continence, but not yet.” That line from St. Augustine could describe the undercurrent of the fiscal negotiations in Washington. We must decide whether to pursue a relatively loose and stimulative policy, and to trust in our later discipline, or to slam on the brakes now.

Yet there may be a way to square this circle. When it comes to income tax rates, we could raise them for virtually everyone, to send a clear message that the current fiscal situation is unsustainable. At the same time, we could limit those tax increases for most income classes to a relatively small percentage, much less than the full expiration of theBush tax cuts would imply.

The sorry truth is that we Americans seem like the addict who keeps saying “I can quit any time,” yet doesn’t cut back. So what else might we say to frame this problem in a more useful way?

To see how this could work, consider this script: Let’s say the Republicans decide to largely give in to what the President Obama is proposing. There is, however, a catch: the president has to agree to raise marginal tax rates on all income classes, not just on the rich. The tax increase would be one-quarter of a percentage point, or some other arbitrary small amount, with larger increases possible for higher incomes, as has been discussed. The deal also stipulates that both the president and Congress must publicly acknowledge that current plans for government spending can’t be financed unless taxes on most or all income groups climb further yet, and by some hefty amount.

Given the slow economy, it is undesirable to reverse all or even most of the Bush tax cuts. A small but publicly trumpeted clawback of some of the cuts would send the right message to voters, while minimizing the macroeconomic fallout. The nice thing about symbols — single shots across the bow — is that they often can suffice.

If people already rationally expect these tax increases, this signal would do neither good nor harm, but perhaps such an approach would nudge political expectations closer to reality without draining the economy.

With such a deal, President Obama would get much of what he wants, which many Republicans find objectionable. Still, the Republicans are in any case unlikely to win this round of budget negotiations. The positioning suggested here would highlight the major weakness and, indeed, an evasion in the Obama administration’s fiscal stance — namely, the president’s campaign pledge to protect the middle class from income tax increases. It is commonly agreed that raising taxes on the wealthy alone will close only a small part of our fiscal gap over the next 10 years; an estimate of 15 percent is optimistic.

It could also be agreed that taxes could come back down in the future, but only if politicians found matching spending cuts.

Think of this stance as a first step toward the explicit pairing of spending and taxes, toward a goal of more responsible fiscal decisions. Although taxes would go up for now, this could lead to a smaller, more effective government than our current mismatch of taxes and spending would produce.

Economic conservatives often stress the connection between low taxes and smaller government. But that observation, as an argument for lower current taxes, looks weaker as the years pass. Keeping taxes low doesn’t stop the growth of government spending and, indeed, makes spending taste like a free lunch, because the bill is paid much later. The conservative strategy has long been to hold the line on taxes now, but it would be better to encourage the public to more readily grasp and internalize the costs of government spending.

There is something to be said for “pricing” big government by making an explicit connection to taxes, much the way utilities explicitly price water and electricity. And higher tax revenue now will decrease the extent to which interest on the debt consumes future budgets — and that probably means lower taxes in the future. Counterintuitively, raising tax rates sooner rather than later may be the true “low-tax policy” because it may increase the chance of limiting future taxes.

In the minds of many moderate and independent voters, the Republicans are currently identified with dysfunctional politics. But this proposal would let them take a credible stand against obstructionism. If the president didn’t like such a deal, he would be the naysayer, and the resulting publicity would shine a bright spotlight on the tax-and-spend mismatch. Suddenly, it would be the Republicans emphasizing the classic American line that “we are all in this together.”

OF course, the notion of tolerating — and especially endorsing — any tax increase is anathema to many of President Obama’s opponents. But keep in mind that possible alternatives, like another debt-ceiling debacle or an agreement that panders to our fiscal illusions, would probably be worse for both the economy and the longer-term reputation of the Republican Party.

In our country, the typical approach to fiscal deadlines is to kick the can down the road. But that assumes we are kicking a can, not a grenade. It’s time for at least one party — and why not the electoral loser? — to do something just a little shocking. It can give in on much of the negotiations, but insist that both sides start stressing the fiscal truth.