Commentary Magazine


Broder’s Taxing Conventionalism

David Broder long ago ceased to be (if he ever was) an influential columnist. But he does serve a useful purpose: few writers capture shallow conventional wisdom quite as well as Mr. Broder. Take Broder’s latest column, in which Broder claims that “the greatest moral failing of the Bush presidency” was “his refusal to ask any sacrifice from most of the American people when he put the nation on a wartime footing after the Sept. 11 attacks.” According to Broder, “the only thing [Americans not in the military] were asked to do was ‘go shopping.'” And what “sacrifice” does Broder believe the President should have asked for? Why higher taxes, of course. The great sin of the Bush presidency is that “President Bush declared war on America’s enemies without asking for the higher taxes needed to pay for it.”

This column is ignorant on several levels.

To start with: the claim that shopping was the “only thing” the President asked people to do in the way of sacrifice after 9/11 is demonstrably false. Responding to this charge doesn’t require uncovering any state secrets. Broder might have consulted, for starters, one of the most watched speeches of the Bush Presidency: the 2002 State of the Union address, in which the President said this:

For too long our culture has said, “If it feels good, do it.”  Now America is embracing a new ethic and a new creed: “Let’s roll.” In the sacrifice of soldiers, the fierce brotherhood of firefighters, and the bravery and generosity of ordinary citizens, we have glimpsed what a new culture of responsibility could look like.  We want to be a nation that serves goals larger than self.  We’ve been offered a unique opportunity, and we must not let this moment pass.

My call tonight is for every American to commit at least two years — 4,000 hours over the rest of your lifetime — to the service of your neighbors and your nation. Many are already serving, and I thank you.  If you aren’t sure how to help, I’ve got a good place to start.  To sustain and extend the best that has emerged in America, I invite you to join the new USA Freedom Corps.  The Freedom Corps will focus on three areas of need:  responding in case of crisis at home; rebuilding our communities; and extending American compassion throughout the world.

One purpose of the USA Freedom Corps will be homeland security. America needs retired doctors and nurses who can be mobilized in major emergencies; volunteers to help police and fire departments; transportation and utility workers well-trained in spotting danger.

Our country also needs citizens working to rebuild our communities.  We need mentors to love children, especially children whose parents are in prison.  And we need more talented teachers in troubled schools.  USA Freedom Corps will expand and improve the good efforts of AmeriCorps and Senior Corps to recruit more than 200,000 new volunteers.

And America needs citizens to extend the compassion of our country to every part of the world.  So we will renew the promise of the Peace Corps, double its volunteers over the next five years and ask it to join a new effort to encourage development and education and opportunity in the Islamic world.

This time of adversity offers a unique moment of opportunity — a moment we must seize to change our culture.  Through the gathering momentum of millions of acts of service and decency and kindness, I know we can overcome evil with greater good.

So Broder’s claim is indisputably wrong.

On the matter of tax increases as a proxy for sacrifice: Most people’s ideas of sacrifice are closer to what the President laid out than what Broder has in mind. More tellingly, Broder does not think of tax policy through the lens of economics. If he did, he would know that raising taxes in the midst of a recession (which Bush inherited in the early months of 2001) and after the blow the September 11th attacks delivered on the American economy (we lost a million jobs in 90 days, with some sectors of the economy almost coming to a full stop) would be insanity. The truth is that the President’s tax cuts of 2001 and especially 2003 helped jump start the economy. And the flood tide of revenues that came in helped the deficit to decrease to just above one percent of GDP in 2007, significantly below the average 2.3 percent that’s been the norm since 1970. Economists at the time were saying that at the current pace, the budget could move back into surplus as early as 2008. So tax cuts were, in fact, generating economic growth, and the revenues that generated were in turn virtually paying for the war President Bush had declared on America’s enemies.

But the economy began to slow down in 2008 and, in September, the financial and credit crisis hit, causing the deficit to explode. The trouble for Mr. Broder’s thesis is that no sentient person blames tax cuts for the housing bubble that burst. If Broder wants to pin blame on anyone, perhaps he could devote a few columns to Democrats who blocked efforts by President Bush (and for that matter, John McCain) to impose needed regulations on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the federally chartered mortgage finance companies that actually did contribute to the crisis we now face.

Mr. Broder is one of those people who views higher taxes as a sign of moral rectitude. This sentiment runs so deep that one senses if Broder knew lower taxes would generate more economic growth and higher revenues, he would still oppose them on the grounds that higher taxes are morally superior to lower taxes, quite apart from their economic consequences.

Mr. Broder’s column is evidence of a lazy writer and a lazy mind at work. I’m not sure this qualifies as a “moral failing,” but it does qualify as an intellectual one.

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