02 March 2013

The Philosopher Politicians Reappear at the New York Times

by Dean Baker

Saturday, 02 March 2013 06:27

It seems pretty obvious to most of us that politicians get elected by appealing to powerful interest groups. They spend enormous amounts of time calling up rich people to ask for campaign donations and speaking to individuals who can help to deliver large numbers of votes. This is hardly a secret.

Yet, the New York Times again tries to tell us that these people are really philosophers, telling readers in a headline:

"Deep philosophical divide underlies the impasse"

in reference to the budget sequester.

The piece explains to readers:

"a step back illuminates roots deeper than the prevailing notion that Washington politicians are simply fools acting for electoral advantage or partisan spite.Republicans don’t seek to grind government to a halt. But they do aim to shrink its size by an amount currently beyond their institutional power in Washington, or popular support in the country, to achieve.

"Democrats don’t seek to cripple the nation with debt. But they do aim to preserve existing government programs without the ability, so far, to set levels of taxation commensurate with their cost.

"At bottom, it is the oldest philosophic battle of the American party system — pitting Democrats’ desire to use government to cushion market outcomes and equalize opportunity against Republicans’ desire to limit government and maximize individual liberty."

Really, this is a battle of philosophy?

Let's try an alternative explanation. Let's assume that Republicans answer to rich people who don't want to pay a dime more in taxes and would actually prefer to pay many dimes less. Let's imagine that these people are not stupid and that they understand completely what conservative economists like Greg Mankiw, Martin Feldstein and Alan Greenspan have been telling them for years, tax expenditures are a form of spending. In other words, if we give someone a housing subsidy of $5,000 a year by cutting their taxes by this amount if they buy a home, it is the same thing as if the government sends them a check that says "housing subsidy."

If we take the philosophy view of this debate then Republicans would be all for eliminating the tax expenditures that mostly go to line the pockets of rich people. On the other hand, if we think this is a debate about whose pockets get lined then Republicans who are opposed to spending would be opposed to eliminating tax expenditures for rich people.

Neither we nor the NYT know which explanation is true. But the NYT explanation requires that the politicians who oppose cuts in tax expenditures and/or their backers are stupid. They may be, or the NYT may just be wrong and badly misinforming its readers.  

Thanks to Keane Bhatt for calling this one to my attention.