Alan, you should have known better

Benjamin Barber


KAI RYSSDAL: Hard as this might be to believe, the government's about to run out of money. More accurately, the ability to borrow money.

It's called the debt limit -- this year, we'll hit the current ceiling of nearly $9 trillion a week from Monday. Congress has had to raise its limit on the amount the Treasury Department's allowed to borrow four times since George Bush took office six-and-a-half years ago.

Former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan wrote in his memoir that came out this week he had expected Republicans to deliver smaller government and lower spending. Commentator Benjamin Barber says: Alan, you should have known better.

BENJAMIN BARBER: Alan Greenspan is only the latest in a long line of scholarly economists who, in their purism, don't get politics -- aka hypocrisy.

David Stockman, President Reagan's long-suffering OMB director, learned the hard way that Reagan's rhetoric about across-the-board spending cuts to bring down the size of government was just that: campaign rhetoric.

Once in office, Reagan applied fiscal restraint to health, education and welfare spending -- but not to entitlements or military spending. Government got bigger, and Stockman went home feeling betrayed. You can still read about it in Stockman's scathing book on the "Reagan Revolution."

Then there was the first Bush Sr. administration: "Read my lips, no more taxes!" and "Let's lower the size of big government" where government only got bigger, even as the rich got tax breaks on Greenspan's watch at the Fed.

So why should it be any different in the second Bush administration, where Greenspan's quiet advice to Bush to veto spending bills sent to him by a Republican Congress was, Greenspan complains, ignored?

Fiscal restraint is a Republican mantra meant to combat those mischievous "tax and spend" Democrats. But it isn't real Republican policy.

The real difference economically between Democrats and Republicans is not that one spends and the other doesn't -- only what they are willing to spend for, and whose taxes they are willing to raise or lower.

Fiscal restraint isn't part of the political vocabulary, whatever side of the aisle politicians sit on.

We can argue about whether this is good or bad, but economists like Greenspan make the mistake of thinking that the painful economic principle of self-restraint can actually be politically viable.

That would require either statesman-like leaders or disciplined citizens. And there's no sign that either are in the offing in this busy, rhetoric-mad campaign year.


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