Sunday, April 04, 2010

Tea Party - Good or Bad?

OK, I gave this a loaded title. Loaded in the sense that it implies that the Tea Party - like almost any political party - can be labeled "good" or "bad" (despite what Glenn Beck thinks).

I think the simplest way to sum up my attitude toward the Tea Party folks is this: right concerns, wrong approach.

One of the biggest Tea Party concerns is deficit spending, and I have to say I completely agree. This could well be the biggest threat to our long-term economic future, and we need to get our debt in order, no doubt. I understand that we just came through a very nasty recession and I don't know enough about economics to say whether or not Keynes was full of crap for his prescriptions on what to do during a recession. But we're emerging now, so whether or not Keynes was right, his prescriptions for stimulus spending no longer apply, so getting our national balance sheet in order should be priority one.

And I also agree that what makes our country the greatest on earth - and what has made it so successful economically and with so much innovation - is the freedom we all enjoy. Cripple that with government mandates, heavy-handed meddling, stupid regulations, etc., and you are killing the goose that keeps laying golden eggs.

My main point of disagreement with on political grounds with Tea Party folks is on the "TEA" part - i.e., "taxed enough already." While nobody likes paying taxes, I think it's hard to make the case rationally that Americans are substantially over-taxed relative to the benefits they receive from their federal government. This is, of course, a subjective view, and it's hard to argue that government couldn't be more efficient and thus get more done with fewer tax dollars, but I'll go out on a limb and say that our federal government does a reasonable job. Not a great job, but a reasonable one.

So I actually mostly agree with the Tea Party on basic philosophy.

But I could never join a tea party rally because I think the Tea Party methods miss the mark in 3 critical ways.

First, the Tea Party movement is so blatantly partisan that it is hypocritical, which completely undermines its credibility and appeal. Under George W. Bush, TARP was passed and we bailed out AIG, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac. A few grumblings from the right, but the phrase "tea party" had not even yet been invented. There were no mass protests. Then Obama got elected and essentially continued the policies started under Bush: he signed a huge stimulus bill and bailed out GM and Chrysler. These were not novel moves, they were a continuation of a trajectory started under Bush, but he got labeled a socialist for doing so, despite the fact that it was different in no meaningful way from what Bush had done. These actions are either socialist tyranny or they aren't; the political party of the actor doesn't change it. Those who cry "tyranny" about the behavior of one leader but forgive that same behavior of another have obviously lost sight of the fact that tyranny knows no political party.

Secondly, the movement offers lots of complaints but few constructive solutions and policy proposals. I know what they oppose, but I actually don't know what they support. They complain loudly about many things - taxes, "loss of freedom", "socialism", but I have yet to hear something that an elected official could do that they would approve of that would actually solve the problem, other than the ever vague "cut spending" (which always has the subtext of cutting "somebody else's spending.") I think the shouts of "keep your government hands off of my medicare" last summer pretty sell summed up the schizophrenic issues here.

The other "policy" here I think can be described as "starving the beast:" the classic approach of controlling government spending by limiting revenues (i.e., limiting taxes). Great idea, except that the past 30 years have shown pretty decisively that starving the beast does nothing to rein in spending, and therefore only exacerbates debt and deficits. I.e., despite all of the theory, all of the actual data suggests that starving the beast simply doesn't work as a tactic. Oops.

Finally, while the movement has a commendable focus on freedoms, it is very confused as to which are real and meaningful threats to those freedoms as opposed to abstract or imagined freedoms.

For example, the movement focuses on real but mostly abstract freedoms like the right not to carry insurance (ignoring the fact that this "freedom" imposes very real - and expensive - costs on other taxpayers) and on imagined threats to freedom like gun rights being taken away (ignoring the fact that gun rights have - so far - actually expanded under Obama). And yet there has been silence from these quarters on very real, tangible, and significant erosions of our freedoms such as increased restrictions on our ability to fly (no fly lists with no due process or appeals process, restrictions on our ability to carry our personal belongings on-board aircraft), or warrantless wiretapping, etc.

I understand that these things are done in the name of national security, but these are very real limitations to our freedoms for a theoretical improvement in security. And that's a very slippery slope. Given the choice between a mandate to carry health insurance (wow, that sounds almost as controversial as a mandate to brush my teeth - it may be a mandate, but at least it's for something that I actually want!) and having a government spook access my email or telephone conversations, I'll take health insurance, thank-you very much. Yeah, in the abstract, I don't want government telling me to buy health insurance, but in the real world, I would want to buy it anyhow.

So I think my conclusion with regard tot he tea party movement is best summed up as: "right issues (mostly), wrong battles."