Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Something there is that doesn't love a surplus

The following essay was written a few months into the George W. Bush administration.  I emailed it to the editorial page of the Los Angeles Times, and got a call from the editor about ten minutes later.  "Are you sure the country has run a deficit for thirty years?" he asked.  "I guess you're right.  Well, I guess we have to run this, then."  

Thereafter, silence.  I heard nothing back from the Times, and when I called to find out what the problem was, the editor would not take my calls.  Curious.

The Real Danger of a Budget Surplus
By Robert P. Forbes

Why does President Bush want to knock the federal budget into the red? It's a familiar claim these days that Bush developed his $1.6 trillion tax cut plan to fend off a primary challenge from Steve Forbes, and continues to defend it now have a stubborn consistency. Such a view overlooks the thirty-year commitment of conservative Republicans to preventing the accumulation of the budget surplus. The reasons for the seemingly irrational policy is not hard to find if one looks to earlier American history.

The federal surplus, as 19th century slaveholders knew and feared, carries with it the potential for social transformation on a huge scale. James Madison suggested that the government emancipate the slaves and relocate them to Africa. The cost he projected as a staggering $600 million; but "happily," he wrote, the expense was not a problem because the nation's greatest resource, its public lands, were worth three times that amount. Nine northern states called for just this policy in 1825.

John Quincy Adams, the most strongly nationalist president between George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, urged that the United States apply the tremendous power it derived from its liberty to "ends of beneficence"--toward building the nation's infrastructure, chartering a national university, promoting scientific expeditions, and responsibly managing the country's natural resources. For his proposal, Adams incurred the wrath of reactionary Southerners and their Northern allies, who believed that national spending constituted a deadly threat to the slaveholding status quo.

Adams was replaced by Andrew Jackson, a staunch friend of slavery. But Jackson's policy of fiscal restraint, which first endeared him to slaveholders, later terrified them as the federal debt. An ally of South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun described the imminent extinction of the debt as "a crisis in the history of nations" that would shatter Jackson's Democratic Party, because the surplus would invite steps to end slavery. Many anti-tariff South Carolina "nullifiers" explicitly declared that it was not federal power that they most feared, but the federal revenues that an increased tax on imports would generate and that would serve as a tempting catalyst to social change. For this reason, most Southern leaders supported giving away the public lands to settlers at virtually no cost.

Quietly and without fanfare, the Clinton administration reversed 30 years of deficit spending and put the government in the black. One would think that this would be the ideal time to resume John Quincy Adams's conversation about the proper means of applying American power toward "ends of beneficence." Some commentators have begun this discussion, moving beyond the usual formulas of paying down the debt and shoring up Medicaid and Social Security. Groups like the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities have promoted such uses as extending health coverage to the uninsured, reducing poverty, and investing in education, research, and the nation’s infrastructure as appropriate ends for employing the surplus.

These ideas are unlikely to receive a serious hearing, however. Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, long an opponent of large tax cuts, cast a pall over spending for the common good by arguing that large surpluses "distort the structure of private economic growth." Spending is bad, he asserted, because it leads to deficits. Yet Greenspan made no objection to $1 trillion missile defense system that seems to have no feasible mission other than shooting down the nation's growing budget surplus. Missing entirely from Greenspan's testimony was any discussion of identifying national priorities or addressing national needs.
What would an America look like that had the physical means to provide such benefits as health care, decent housing, and a first-rate public education to all of its citizens? For the first time in our nation's history, we are on the cusp of finding out. But as ever in the past, powerful forces are fighting to ensure that scarcity prevails.