CONTENTS FOR MARCH 2004
Deficits Compared to What?
Art of the Possible
A Conservative Anthem
Getting in on the Secret
DEFICITS COMPARED TO WHAT?
The question of how much government is enough, as measured by the budget, will occupy us throughout 2004. Both at the state level where I serve, and in Washington with the presidency at stake, rhetoric about fiscal responsibility tends to mask the real objective: diverting ever-larger amounts of private earnings into the public sector. My side wants to resist this while maintaining (through debt, if need be) some upside flexibility for spending toward reform goals, for example in education. In my latest Head On TV debate with Susan Barnes-Gelt, the exchange went this way:
SBG: Colorado is in a world of hurt. A $450 million deficit over the next three years means no money for roads, higher ed, or human services. Even the governor, conservative “read my lips, no tax” Bill Owens, is working with Democrats and Republicans to fix TABOR and adjust Amendment 23. We need a rainy day fund for bad times and enough resources – when the economy rebounds – for transportation, education, kids and the elderly.
JA: The question to ask about any deficit, state or federal, is the one W. C. Fields asked about his wife – compared to what? Bush’s tax cuts worked well, and the resulting red ink is manageable. Colorado’s budget is balanced and growing, even if spending is less than some people want. Compared to California we’re doing great, thanks to the TABOR spending limit. But bending TABOR a little, in return for teacher union givebacks, might be a fair bargain.
SBG: Bush’s phony budget numbers don’t even include the cost of the war in Iraq. The fat in his budget makes a Big Mac look like Slimfast. The burden of spiraling deficits on our kids and grandkids is huge. And as for Colorado – if we don’t start investing in transportation, higher ed and infant immunization – we’ll have to replace the governor’s “open for business” signs with “closed for repairs.”
JA: The liberals never saw a spending program or a tax they didn’t like. When President Bush and Governor Owens both Cut taxes, you predicted the sky would fall – but it hasn’t. Conservatives know that less revenue eventually leads to less government, which in turn leads to more freedom and more prosperity. When the next president is chosen and the TABOR-23 ballot issue comes up, you’ll find that voters agree.
SBG: You’ve got your elephants and donkeys confused. It’s George Bush and the GOP Congress who are on a spending binge with record deficits. As for the libertarian view that no government is good government – it’s not working in Haiti or Iraq and it won’t solve America’s problems. Tax cuts for the rich haven’t trickled down and solved the problems worrying most Americans: jobs, jobs, jobs.
JA: When Democrats weep over budget deficits, it’s crocodile tears. You never want to take dollars away from bureaucrats, you want to pile higher taxes on the people. We can’t tax ourselves rich. Economic recovery nationwide is resulting from lower taxes. Bush has improved health care, Owens has expanded highways, both have reformed education. Such success naturally attracts its share of jealousy.
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THE ART OF THE POSSIBLE, QUANTIFIED
Picture a 10-point scale of political attitudes. The rightmost conservative would be a 10, the leftmost liberal a zero (sorry), the centrist moderate would be a 5. Locate yourself on the scale. Locate the political figures you’re interested in. (I’m probably about a 7.5, maybe an 8.) Now here’s the point: consider that in order to govern effectively, maintain good poll numbers, and achieve reelection, elected leaders have to peg their overall policies and image fairly close to where most voters peg themselves on that scale.
With reference to the budget discussion above, for example, it doesn’t matter that Bush and Owens are personally both at 7 or above. They’ve concluded that 6 is about as high as it’s feasible to go in the current political climate. Are they wrong? That’s why we have elections.
I’m indebted to the formidable Jack Farris, president of the National Federation of Independent Business, for this concept. Jack is a solid 8 or 8.5 himself, I’d say, but he reckons you can’t govern at higher than 5.5 to 6.5 in America today. Of course real leadership consists in moving that window of “the possible” further up the scale.
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A CONSERVATIVE ANTHEM
“As I pass through my incarnations in every age and race,
I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market-Place.
Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.”
So begins Rudyard Kipling’s 1919 poem, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings.” The poet surveys all history in 40 mordant lines, drily remarking how the same old truths always seem to trump each new utopian fad. It’s a classic of conservative wisdom, time-tested realism in a fallen world.
Mankind long ago wearied of wisdom’s warnings that wishes are not horses, that pigs can’t fly, that the moon is not Stilton cheese, says Kipling. “So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.” The market gods, in his usage, symbolize not economic laws but popular notions.
Their promise of “perpetual peace… if we gave them our weapons [and] disarmed” was of course a bitter illusion. The copybook gods admonished: “Stick to the Devil you know.” When visions of “the Fuller Life (which started by loving our neighbor and ended by loving his wife)” proved equally fruitless, the copybooks chided: “The Wages of Sin is Death.”
Then the market gods again cheated gullible humanity with dreams of “abundance for all, by robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul.” Once more, Kipling writes, the copybook gods patiently taught us that “If you don’t work you die, [and] All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four.” His future in the final stanza is now our past, 85 years’ worth, and still the grim truth holds:
“As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of man –
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began: –
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;
And that after all is accomplished, and the brave new world begins,
When all men are paid for existing, and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!”
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GETTING IN ON THE SECRET
[Note: This piece from our December 1998 issue is reprinted by way of indirect comment on Mel Gibson’s electrifying new movie, “The Passion of the Christ.” It is my hope that the film will help many more people get in on the secret as Easter 2004 approaches.]
Imagine with me: A grieving king has a secret plan. Pardon for his rebellious subjects will be bought with the blood of his own son, born as a commoner and killed as a criminal. As the time nears, he hints of the audacious ransom to a series of trusted servants: Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah.
When all is ready, he whispers the secret to a handful who need to know it, overheard by a few other keen listeners: the aged Zacharias and Elisabeth and their wild boy John, the peasant girl Mary and her carpenter fiancÚ, local herdsmen, foreign astrologers, devout temple elders, a jealous regional despot.
Approaching adulthood, the young prince himself becomes aware of his father’s plan. Eventually he begins acting on it, revealing parts of the design to those who need his help or whose cooperation he requires. Fishermen, tax collectors, housewives, neighbor children, fallen women, invalids, church leaders, soldiers, politicians, and convicts are all gradually let in on the secret.
After accomplishing his death, the prince returns alive to reteach the slow learners left behind. Finally some of them get it, just a few dozen at first, but soon it is being shouted from the rooftops across the known world.
This incredible news that the king and his son love each of us personally and extravagantly, despite all the sorrow we have brought them, has been an open secret in the kingdom for quite a while now. But the enemy battles fiercely to void the secret with sophistry, or to hide it amid familiarity.
The struggle intensifies at Christmas and Easter each year, when Jesus’ birth and death are remembered anew. Those days are kept as holy by many, but shrugged off with indifference or sentimentality by too many more. So where are you at this Lenten season, my friend? Rejoicing in the open secret of the crucified and risen Lord, or distracted by the enemy?
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