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Robert Samuelson Offers a Modest Proposal for our Deficit Problem

(photo: pboothe)

It isn’t easy to read a whole Robert Samuelson column, especially one so packed with the spirit of the season as this one. And by spirit, I mean a combination of whiskey in the fruitcake and rum in the egg nog, certainly not the Christmas Spirit. No, that Christmas Spirit went out with the transition from what Samuelson calls “giveaway politics” to “takeaway politics.”

He explains: Politics can’t cope with this change. Liberals say that increasing taxes on rich people will solve the long-term problem. But that is false: why, if we confiscated the wealth of the Forbes 400, we would only get $1.5 trillion, which is just over the 2011 deficit of $1.3 trillion. Conservatives are equally wrong, says Samuelson, because they ignore the popularity of spending on Social Security and Medicare. (Don’t focus on the details, you’ll get a headache.) You see, we can’t afford to pay for the promises we made without tax increases. Therefore, the only solution is to cut benefits. How ever will our politics manage that? Politics can fail, Samuelson tells us, as it did in the years leading up to the Civil War. Get it? Raising taxes on rich people is just like slavery. Or maybe cutting benefits is just like slavery. It’s all so confusing. Let’s forge on.

I think Samuelson is on to something with his modest proposal that we confiscate the wealth of the Forbes 400. Suppose we modify it slightly, by confiscating all wealth above some floor, say $500,000,000 for human persons, $5 billion owned by a Foundation, and let’s say $50 billion owned by a Corporate Person. We wouldn’t want to discourage those nice job-creators, now would we, so we’ll leave them a huge pile of money, easily enough for a nice yacht, a corporate jet, and a sickeningly large check to the CEO.

Suddenly politics gets easier. There aren’t nearly so many money votes in the next election. After all, if you only have a paltry half a billion dollars, and no prospect of getting more, why buy an election for a politician or even a political party? Why fund the third-rate employees of the American Enterprise Institute? Why buy a television station to air your crackpot views? It’s a much better plan to buy a nice villa in the south of Brazil and start a coffee farm. You wouldn’t want to move to France, where they actually tax your pathetic half billion.

Suddenly, without that set of oligarchs insisting that we can’t do anything, we have a chance to have a real politics and real government. We won’t be influenced by lies and distortions funded by the likes of the creepy Walton heirs, the Koch heirs, and the rest of the privileged rich. That means we can elect politicians who represent ordinary people. We can hire them some smart staffers to work towards goals of average people. We can have administrations stocked with smart people who are allowed to carry out the desires of the people. We can put smart technicians into bureaucracies and get things done, like we did before the Oligarchy took over. It would be just like a democracy.

Maybe that Samuelson is on to something.

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I read a lot of books.