Samuelson will tell you the truths you don’t want to hear

Robert J. Samuelson — whom I don’t read as often as I should because of his tendency to write about money and other things one can measure with numbers — is not a guy to read at all if you want him to tell you things you want to hear.

Robert J. Samuelson

Robert J. Samuelson

Well, let me amend that: I think the things he has to say are fine, when I can cut through the numbers and read him. But based on voting patterns I’ve seen in recent years, he’s likely to give a lot of other folks apoplexy.

For instance… not satisfied merely to slice and dice the Republicans’ contemptible tax “reform” plan last month, he strode right past the nonsense to speak a home truth: “Americans aren’t taxed enough.

He didn’t mean it in absolute terms, of course. There is no perfect amount of taxation, and saying “this isn’t enough taxation” in a vacuum would be as idiotic as say, also in a vacuum, that “Americans are taxed too much.” And Samuelson is not an idiot.

No, he means that as long as America means to spend X amount — and there has been no credible effort to reduce the lion’s share of spending — it must have the common sense and maturity to pay X amount in taxes. And it’s been a very long time since we’ve done that.

As he put it:

The truth is that we can’t afford any tax reduction. We need higher, not lower, taxes. What we should be debating is the nature of new taxes (my choice: a carbon tax), how quickly (or slowly) they should be introduced and how much prudent spending cuts could shrink the magnitude of tax increases.

To put this slightly differently: Americans are under-taxed. We are under-taxed not in some principled and philosophical sense that there is an ideal level of taxation that we haven’t yet reached. We are under-taxed in a pragmatic and expedient way. For half a century, we haven’t covered our spending with revenue from taxes…

We resist the discipline of balancing the budget, which is inherently unpopular. It’s what Eugene Steuerle of the Urban Institute calls “take-away politics.” Some programs would be cut; some taxes would be raised. Americans like big government. They just don’t like paying for it….

But if you think that’ll make some people mad, consider his column today. But first, someone bring the smelling salts for Bud and Doug. The headline is, “Why we must raise defense spending.” An excerpt:

Politically, the vaunted military-industrial complex has been no match for the welfare state’s personal handouts. There has been a historic transformation. In the 1950s and 1960s, defense spending often accounted for half of the federal budget and equaled 8 to 10 percent of gross domestic product (the economy). In 2016, defense spending was 3 percent of GDP and 15 percent of the federal budget, according to the Office of Management and Budget. Meanwhile, welfare programs — called “human resources” by the OMB — accounted for 15 percent of GDP and 73 percent of federal spending….

The result is this:

Here is the assessment of Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense specialist at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute:

“The United States now fields a military that could not meet even the requirements of a benign Clinton-era world. The services have watched their relative overmatch and capacity decline in almost every domain of warfare . . . for nearly two decades. As rival nation-states have accelerated their force development, the Department of Defense has stalled out, creating a dangerous window of relative military advantage for potential foes. . . . While the United States continues to field the best military personnel in the world, policy makers have asked them to do too much with too little for too long.”…

So, to summarize, we’re not taxing enough for the spending we’re doing, and we’re not spending enough to adequately perform what was originally the government’s chief responsibility.

And before I get the cliche response — citing numbers showing how much more we spend than other nations is pretty pointless. We emerged from 1945 as the chief guarantor of a security order designed to stave off World War III. And the only nations that have shown any interest in taking that mantle of dominant military power off our hands have been the very last big countries a believer in liberal democracy would want to see do so.

Samuelson may write too much about numbers, but I have to hand it to him: He goes right where the number lead him, regardless of whose ox gets gored, on both the left and the right…

19 thoughts on “Samuelson will tell you the truths you don’t want to hear

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Samuelson sort of has something in common with Tippi the Turtle, from SNL long ago:

    You remember Tippi, don’t you? His theme song went,

    First, I’m gonna bother everybody I meet
    Then, I’ll probably go home and get drunk.

    Tippi, you go right ahead and bother those hammerheads — on both sides of the aisle!

  2. Kay Packett

    Well, Medicare and Social Security aren’t “welfare,” of course. They’re non-optional investments, which, as it turns out, can’t sustain returns.

    What’s the answer to that?

  3. Lynn Teague

    We don’t appear to be successful in maintaining the “liberal world order” at home. More bombs aren’t the answer to protecting it abroad.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      No, they’re not THE answer; they’re AN answer, along with all the other tools, such as diplomacy, humanitarian aid, etc., that are also underfunded.

      Under Rex Tillerson, the State Department is being eviscerated. But that’s just fine and dandy in Trump’s “America First” worldview…

      1. Doug Ross

        We have more than enough bombs. The next world war won’t require many bombs at all. It’s not 1945.

  4. Phillip

    “the only nations that have shown any interest in taking that mantle of dominant military power off our hands have been the very last big countries a believer in liberal democracy would want to see do so.”

    What happens if the United States turns itself into another one of those nations that “a believer in liberal democracy” would be troubled to see clinging to the “mantle of dominant military power” in the world? In that case, not only are the other liberal democracies of the world going to have to assume a larger share of those responsibilities which had in the postwar era concentrated mostly with the US, they’re going to actually want to, as the interests of said liberal democracies are going to begin to diverge more and more and more with the US. Think of the reception Tillerson got on his last visit to Europe.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      ‘What happens if the United States turns itself into another one of those nations that “a believer in liberal democracy” would be troubled to see clinging to the “mantle of dominant military power” in the world?’

      That’s a good thing to worry about in the world of Trump.

      As I just said to Lynn, the other tools of American influence are being neglected as well. Tillerson is gutting the State Department. If I were a foreign leader, the only good thing about a visit from Tillerson would be that he’s not Trump…

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      We have to do two things simultaneously: We have to keep up the tools that allow us to exercise global influence — which includes military power as well as such recently-abandoned efforts as the TPP. Second, we have to make sure we remain the kind of country that other liberal democracies trust to lead, as you suggest.

      While I want to see us keep up our military and fully fund and staff the State Department and otherwise keep our tools functional and effective, it’s the second issue that I’m more worried about at this point in our history. Every day that Trump is president, we become less and less the nation with the standing and worthiness to lead…

    3. Brad Warthen Post author

      I’m not going to explain how something on the blog today caused me to click and click again, and end up reading this piece in the Paris Review about how Yeats’ “The Second Coming” “may well be the most thoroughly pillaged piece of literature in English.”

      Anyway, in discussing one of the works doing that pillaging — Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem — it quotes what she wrote in 1968 about the hippies she found in San Francisco:

      At some point between 1945 and 1967 we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing.

      Wow. Yeah. And somewhere along the way, someone neglected to tell today’s voters about the rules we’ve played in the world since 1945, the ones that have helped us avoid World War III, and to spread a greater measure of freedom and prosperity among the world’s people…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yep, but Congress must specifically name the cuts — none of this across the board garbage. Propose a cut, and we can discuss it.

      I don’t mean you. I mean Congress…

  5. Mr. Smith

    I’ve been around the block a few times. And from what I’ve gathered, the US administrations that increase military spending actually make our friends abroad worry more about what we might do with that beefed up military. So let’s not talk about a world hungering for more American military assertiveness, because that constituency by and large does not exist. Brad wants to make military strength a stand-in for national strength. They’re not the same.

    Brad also contradicts himself in the way he interprets the two Samuelson quotes. On the one hand, he says that there is no absolute right amount of taxation, but then he suggests there IS an absolutely right amount of defense spending: namely, the kind of spending we were doing in the 1950s and 60s. But I see no reason to take that as the gold standard.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Actually, I did not say that. I merely gave people who think military spending is out of control a point of reference. Or rather, Samuelson did, and I shared it with you.

      1. Mr. Smith

        But the underlying assumption Samuelson made is dubious. Let’s dig a little deeper, shall we?

        First of all, Samuelson cites just one analyst (with the “right-leaning AEI”) as the basis for his conclusion. This seems to me some awfully thin sourcing for drawing such a sweeping conclusion. One person’s view – even if they are a “defense specialist” – does not settle the issue. And this is in no way a settled issue – not even among defense specialists.

        Second, two of the specific problems pointed to involve Army personnel shortages – which, to a significant degree, relate to attrition directly resulting from our recent spate of wars.

        Third, it’s not at all clear – and here’s another debate among defense specialists – that the other two “shortages” cited – planes and ships – necessarily reflect shortages that need to be corrected, since the current numbers only look like “shortages” when compared to the peaks under the Reagan buildup of the 1980s. And many defense specialists question a need for a return to those kinds of levels. Samuelson’s suggestion that there’s a “correct” ratio of domestic vs. military spending is just his opinion, not hard fact.

        What’s more, the number of planes, ships and personnel – and therefore defense spending levels – should be driven by what you need or want to accomplish with those things – your strategy – not by some sort of bead-counting exercise. Samuelson turns that on its head in saying that it’s the numbers themselves that have intrinsic meaning. They don’t.

        Lastly, and relatedly, Samuelson provides no evidence for his claim that we have “grown more vulnerable.” Maybe because vulnerability is not really something that can be measured in any concrete way. Sure, you can count ships, plans and soldiers, but there is no magic number that makes you safe and another that leaves you vulnerable. So using that term mainly serves to try to preempt skepticism of the assumptions and assertions he goes on to make. He really should stick with economics, not dabble in national security strategy.

  6. Doug Ross

    Today’s news:

    “The federal government collected record total tax revenues of $443,715,000,000 in the first two months of fiscal 2018 (Oct. 1, 2017 through the end of November), according to the Monthly Treasury Statement.
    Despite these record tax revenues, the federal government still ran a deficit of $201,761,000,000 for those same two months. That is because the government spent $645,476,000,000 in October and November. The $443,715,000,000 that the federal government collected in taxes in the first two months of this fiscal year was $12,873,120,000 more in constant 2018 dollars than it collected in the first two months of fiscal 2017 and $11,352,180,000 more than it collected in the first two months of fiscal 2016.”

    So, Mr. Samuelson (and Brad), how much more do you want beyond the record tax revenues that are being collected now? Give us a percentage… It would take a 50% increase to cover the deficit (nevermind the debt). Are you guys willing to increase your taxes by 50%? How about 25%? 10? Stop me when I get to the point where your sense of civil duty reaches your willingness to put your money where your mouth is.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      No, I’m not going to “give you a percentage,” because I find that sort of thinking ridiculous.

      No, wait; I can give you one: How much should we pay in taxes? 100 percent of what we spend.

      And if you want to cut spending, be specific on the cuts you want, and get them through Congress…

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