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Our decadent democracy

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Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013, 8:57 p.m.


Connoisseurs of democratic decadence can savor a variety of contemporary dystopias. Because familiarity breeds banality, Greece has become a boring horror. Japan, however, in its second generation of stagnation, is fascinating. Once, Japan bestrode the world, jauntily buying Rockefeller Center and Pebble Beach. Now Japanese buy more adult diapers than those for infants.

America has its lowest birth rate since at least 1920 — family formation and workforce participation (which last year hit a 30-year low) have declined in tandem. But it has an energy surplus, the government-produced overhang of housing inventory is shrinking and the average age of Americans' cars is an astonishing 10.8 years. Such promising economic indicators, however, mask America's democratic decadence, as explained by the Hudson Institute's Christopher DeMuth (The Weekly Standard, Dec. 24):

Deficit spending once was largely for investments — building infrastructure, winning wars — which benefited future generations, so government borrowing appropriately shared the burden with those generations. Now, however, continuous borrowing burdens future generations in order to finance current consumption. Today's policy, says DeMuth, erases “the distinction between investing for the future and borrowing from the future.”

December's maneuverings taught three lessons.

First, there will be no significant spending restraint. Democrats — you know, the people respectful of evidence and science — even rejected a more accurate measurement of the cost of living that would slightly slow increases in myriad government benefits.

Second, Barack Obama has (as Winston Churchill said of an adversary) “the gift of compressing the largest amount of words into the smallest amount of thought.” His incessant talking swaddles one wee idea — raising taxes on “millionaires and billionaires,” including couples earning less than half a million.

Third, a large majority of Democrats favor making a large majority of the Bush tax cuts permanent. Both parties flinch from cliff-related tax increases and spending decreases. But neither the increases nor decreases would have tamed the current $1 trillion-plus budget deficit nor made a discernible dent in the 87-times-larger unfunded liabilities of the entitlement state.

This state cannot be funded by taxing “the rich.” Or even by higher income taxes on the middle class. Income taxes cannot fund the government liberals want, and they dare not seek the consumption and energy taxes their entitlement architecture requires.

As economists Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane explain in National Affairs quarterly, America's political system “cannot govern the entitlement state” that “exists largely to provide material benefits to individuals.” Piling up unsustainable entitlement promises has been improvident for the nation but rational for the political class. The promised expenditures, far in excess of revenues, would come due “beyond the horizon of political consequences.”

Furthermore, a critical mass of Republicans rejects the careerists' understanding of “politically rational” behavior. These Republicans have a different rationale for being in politics.

The media say the tea party impulse is exhausted. Scores of House Republicans and seven first-term Republican senators will soon — hello, debt ceiling — prove otherwise.

George F. Will is a columnist for The Washington Post and Newsweek.

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