December 29, 2009
'I Am Not a Spendthrift'
The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once defended the proposition that every statement suggests its opposite. Others have expressed a similar skepticism concerning the trustworthiness of words, especially when those words are not backed by action. From Shakespeare ("The lady doth protest too much, methinks") to Emily Dickinson ("A word is dead/When it is said"), our great writers have always been suspicious of flowery words.
Modern political history offers plenty of examples of words that suggest their opposite. For many who watched the speech, Richard Nixon's insistence that he was "not a crook" immediately heightened the suspicion that he was. Bill Clinton's finger-wagging denial of ever having had "sex with that woman" only whetted public curiosity to find out what he had been doing with that woman.
So far, the Obama presidency has disappointed those with a taste for criminality or prurience among those in high office. Aside from some difficulty understanding the tax code, most of Obama's appointees have avoided legal difficulties, and it is hard to imagine a Lewinsky moment for a president as cold and detached as Obama appears to be.
Though this president may not be a philanderer or a crook, he clearly is a spendthrift. His great failing is that he simply does not understand the difference between a billion and a trillion, nor does he seem to understand that even a billion is real money. That is the very reason why, from early in the presidential campaign up to the present, the president has taken pains to portray himself as a frugal cost-cutter. The $878-billion stimulus spending package was an "emergency" item, a one-time expenditure -- though it was soon followed by a $600-billion omnibus spending bill, and thus was not to be viewed as a permanent increase in spending. Nor is the likelihood of a second round of stimulus spending (designed to create temporary jobs) ahead of the fall election to be interpreted as spending. In the president's linguistic universe, "spending" can be called "saving," just as "taxes" can be said to be "contributions."
Whenever a president resorts to bluster, as Obama has done when the topic of the cost of health care reform has come up, we can be sure that he has something to hide. When asked about the long-term cost of the government takeover of health care, the president insists that extending coverage to 30 million Americans will actually save hundreds of billions of dollars over ten years. Not only that, but it will be paid for with no tax increase for those earning less than $250,000 -- the only tax increases will fall upon insurance companies and high-worth health insurance plans. But the manner in which Obama tells us these things -- more like the steely tone of a prison guard than an elected official -- suggests that he will brook no further discussion.
When a president blusters, the public needs to ask why. In the case of the House and Senate health care bills now in conference, they need to ask why Obama is so adamant about the reform's saving money in the first ten years. It is because new coverage does not even begin to kick in until 2014, while new taxes and Medicare cuts begin immediately. By 2019, according to the Congressional Budget Office as reported in the Wall Street Journal, the Senate bill results annually in $106.8 billion in new taxes, $105.4 billion in Medicare cuts, and $199 billion in new spending. That's what the president means by "savings." And of course, this projection assumes that Congress will actually have the nerve to cut Medicare by $105 billion per year and face the wrath of a rapidly expanding population of seniors.
Granted that budgetary abuses lack the voyeuristic appeal of criminality and sex, Obama's fiscal recklessness ought nonetheless to be of the greatest concern. Obama's pledge not to raise taxes on those earning less than $250,000 -- "not one penny" -- is starting to sound a lot like George H. W. Bush's "read my lips" oath. The difference is that Obama is a lot more brazen, since he will have to raise taxes a great deal more than Bush did to pay for an expansion of government spending from 18% to 30% of GDP, as now anticipated. An increase of government spending by 67% entails an equal increase in revenue, either from taxes or debt.
Taxing and spending may not be sexy, but in fact they are far more scandalous activities than those engaged in by Presidents Nixon and Clinton. They are scandalous because unlike the foibles of his predecessors, Obama's bad judgment will affect the life of every American, including those yet unborn. Unlike the failings of his predecessors, Obama's fiscal recklessness affects what we are and what we shall be for generations. Shall we be a rich and powerful nation with a strong and trusted currency and prosperous markets -- or an unproductive nation dependent on the fiscal dictates of others? Shall we be a nation of affluence and opportunity, or a nation of beggars housed in public shelter, fed with food stamps, heated and clothed with vouchers, educated in dysfunctional schools, and treated within an overcrowded, government-regulated medical system? The choice depends on whether government is able to restrain its spending.
Certainly, Obama wishes to appear to be a fiscally responsible president who will both lower the deficit and hold the line on taxes. He is loud and insistent, even to the point of browbeating opponents, about controlling spending and not raising taxes. But as Kierkegaard, Shakespeare, and Dickinson understood, "not one penny" is one of those phrases meant to disguise the speaker's intention. It is a classic example "the big lie," a falsehood so outrageous that it cannot easily be challenged. It is, in fact, a rhetorical trick to which Obama frequently resorts.
"Raising taxes next year," says the president, "would be the wrong thing to do." Why would it be the wrong thing to do next year if it is necessary in future years? Does it have anything to do with the November election? What about every year after 2010? The American people recognize lawyerly speech when they hear it. As the American people grow weary of Obama's deception, the moment of truth may finally catch up with him. That is the moment when bluster, deception, and denial no longer work.
With each week that passes, the president's assurances that "spending is saving" ring more hollow. At some future press conference, during some tense interview or angry speech, the moment will surely arrive when the president glowers angrily at the camera and insists that "I am not a wastrel." And at that point, everyone in America will know that he is.
Dr. Jeffrey Folks taught for thirty years in universities in Europe, America, and Japan. He has published ten books.