I like to respond to readers' criticisms whenever I can - especially when the critique and my response might be illuminating for other readers. In that spirit, I answer some comments about my recent article, "Who's Paying for all This?"  Respondents' comments are bolded.
Credibility and Consistency
Some writers questioned my "credibility," basing their criticism on my "consistency." They seemed unwilling to accept any criticisms from me about Democrats' big spending unless I had consistently criticized Mr. Bush for the same thing: e.g.,
"...any conservative who is unwilling to "throw stones" at Pres. Bush's budgets loses some credibility in an argument about Pres. Obama running up our national debt."
This makes me the issue, instead of Mr. Obama's spending, future inflation, destruction of retirees' savings, etc. I'm flattered to be in Rush Limbaugh's company, but this is just a diversion. I'm not important enough to become the issue. Nevertheless, some comments on this are in order.
Is a critique of a president's actions valid only if the writer criticized an earlier president similarly (i.e., a kind of literary "fairness doctrine")? Give me a break. Very little political writing would withstand this measure, as most writers bring a bias to their commentary. This doesn't mean their analysis is wrong, but they usually hit one side harder, depending on their political orientation.
This used to be accepted as standard operating procedure. It reached its zenith during George W's terms, when "W" was the guy liberals loved to hate. They stomped him completely, with few concerns about "consistency" that I saw. A film was even made depicting a fictional assassination of Mr. Bush. Liberals cheered and lionized the producers. (Try to imagine that being done about the present occupant of the White House. It would make me sick, if it were.)
Legitimate criticism of the president has become vastly unfashionable, now that a Democrat is in office. Some of W's loudest critics won't say a word against Mr. Obama, and won't tolerate criticism from others, even when there are serious doubts about what Mr. Obama is doing, or why he is doing it. Rahm Emanuel said you should never "waste a crisis," by way of reveling in doing things now - when people are scared - that would be impossible during normal times. Harsh Bush-critics, who are now mute about Mr. Obama, might later regret their silence. Mr. Emanuel's statement ought to be raising warning flags. These are perilous waters.
I don't think everything President Bush did was correct or even wise, and I certainly said so on occasion (particularly about the "occupation" phase of the Iraq war, which I saw as inadequately supported). But I never thought he acted for partisan political reasons or to "take advantage of a crisis." Mr. Obama and his administration do not inspire me with similar trust. He is a very smooth talker, but I prefer to keep my eye on the ball.
Some Bushian items that liberals complained about most were part of Mr. Bush's program for protecting the country. When those efforts succeeded, many liberals commenced to claim that the terrorism threat probably wasn't real - or they denounced Mr. Bush's actions as more dangerous than the terrorists'. That is very thin soup. But their argument is weak on its merits, not because they didn't criticize Bill Clinton enough.
Congress spends, while the president signs and gets the blame. Mr. Bush should have vetoed some extravagant spending bills, I will agree. But there is a difference in scale: Mr. Obama has already rung up as much deficit in two months as Mr. Bush did in 8 years.
Taxes and Deficits
"He doesn't like taxes or inflation, but I wonder what he proposes as the right solution? Do nothing and let the economy continue to flounder? The Japanese tried that 20 years ago and after a decade of contraction ended up pumping billions into the economy to get things moving anyway. Lower taxes to stimulate more economic activity? That's not exactly a recipe for reducing our national debt, either...We COULD have reduced the national debt early on in the Bush administration if we had controlled government spending and NOT given tax breaks to the highest bracket. Instead we chose to ‘give people back their own money.' A laudable conservative goal, but it put us right back on deficit spending."
In fact, I do favor lowering taxes. Certainly, the Bush cuts should be made permanent, at the very least. Economists agree that uncertainty about the Bush cuts is a major destabilizing influence in the current economy. Liberals like to preach that lowering taxes is a "giveaway" to the rich that increases the deficit and the national debt, but the facts don't bear this out. The Kennedy/Johnson tax cuts (1964), the Reagan cuts (1982) and W's cuts (2001) all produced an expanded economy and more tax revenue. Enabled to keep more of what they made, people and businesses worked harder, earned more, and thus paid more taxes. Liberal taxers-and-spenders have been in denial about this fundamental economic dynamic for a half-century. The respondent (above) seems conservative, but he is aligned with liberals' conventional wisdom on cutting taxes.
The Laffer curve, depicting the relationship between tax revenue and income tax rates, (see below) represents the hard truth that tax rates actually affect taxpayers' earning-behavior. People will not, in fact, work hard for mere pennies on each dollar they earn. A zero tax rate obviously produces no tax revenues, but a 100% tax rate does the same. Laffer postulated an "optimum" tax rate that produces the highest revenues. (Note: the optimum rate is not necessarily 50%.)
In the early 1960s, the top tax rate was 91% on earnings above $400,000 per year. President Kennedy repeatedly denounced the high rates for "depressing revenues". Cutting the top rate to 70% (on earnings above $200,000) boosted the economy and sent the Dow average over 1000 in 1966 - its high point for the next 15 years.
1970s-inflation pushed us into higher brackets, raising our taxes despite the lowered rates. By 1980, the market had sunk back to 800. Mr. Reagan correctly saw that rates were still too high. His 1982 cuts lowered all rates, and the top rate to 50%. In 1986 the tax-table was reduced to just two rates - the highest being 28%. This was a first in income tax history. The longest peacetime boom in American history resulted. Some argue that other factors contributed to the boom (as is always true), but most economists agree that lower taxes directly boosted the economy.
"President Bush decried our addiction to oil as bad for our economy and national security. As a conservative, I applauded and agreed, but the admin never did anything else to address it. If President Obama uses taxes to discourage our (over-) use of fuel (rather than just wring his hands about how bad our addiction is), then I'm all for it."
Few issues are as emotional and downright incendiary for Americans as the availability and price of gasoline. In "The World at War," the excellent English TV documentary on World War II, one segment describes the US wartime home front. It notes that Americans worked with patriotic zeal to help the war effort in myriad ways, including tireless collections of scrap metal, paper, cloth, fat, and other war materials. (The junior high school I attended mounted scrap-metal drives that raised enough money to build four fighter planes - about $50,000 per, at the time.) Americans put up with meatless Fridays, rationed sugar, soap, butter and other restrictions.
But the WAW narrator goes on to say that on one home-front commodity Americans showed that no amount of chicanery, duplicity and outright thievery was beneath them. That commodity was gasoline. Every family had stories of how precious gas-ration coupons were begged, borrowed, bartered, bought or even stolen - or the ration-system circumvented altogether - so they could drive to visit family and friends or to work extra jobs. (Ration stamps didn't "give" you any gas - they only gave you permission to buy gas.)
Americans consider gasoline a key to their normal lifestyle, and they are extremely impatient about any interruption - war or not. I'll be very surprised if undoing this lifestyle is a "change" Americans "can believe in." If Mr. Obama really thinks so, he is in for a big surprise.
Gasoline is a president-killer. Americans blame the guy in the Oval Office if fuel is in short supply or is too expensive. During WWII, gasoline prices were controlled, so the issue was supply. In the 1970s, both price and supply were problematic. In my estimation, gasoline knocked out both Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. (Yes, other factors were involved, but gas prices and supplies were certainly the last straw.) In 2000 and last summer, price was the primary issue. Gas prices might have cost Al Gore the 2000 election and John McCain the 2008 election.
Perhaps our respondent is an exception, but many who blithely speak of diminishing our thirst for oil via higher gas taxes tend to be at the barricades, howling for the president's scalp, when prices go up. Higher taxes to diminish consumption sound great until they hit us in the pocketbook. We had $4.50-a-gallon gas last summer. Think of the diminished gas-use - yet Americans were not a bit pleased. Go figure. (Obviously, I'm ragging the respondent a little. It's pretty clear that Americans have never favored higher gas prices, and they still don't.)
I might not agree with Mr. Obama's policy-direction, but I never said he was stupid. Maybe his ideology will overrule his shrewd political instincts on gas, but I doubt it. I think he is waaay too smart to enact policies that will let gasoline "one-term" him. The respondent mentions (in text I didn't include) that Mr. Obama nixed a proposed tax on miles driven. He did, but the idea came out of the Congress, not the White House. It could easily be slipped into a bill the president must sign - like an "emergency" spending bill.
Thus far, Mr. Obama has not shown much adeptness at squelching bad Congressional ideas. In fact, terrible liberal ideas never die; they just hibernate. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, a bad liberal idea is the closest thing to eternal life we're likely to see on earth. Congress could roll Mr. Obama on gas and some other issues unless he gets a lot tougher with Mrs. Pelosi and Senator Reid. Whether he can do that remains to be seen.
One critic cited his understanding of Jesus to oppose tax- and spending-cuts: e.g.,
"I think either course of action has its merits, and demerits. There's a logic to lowering taxes as long as you're serious about lowering the spending. I think one of the problems I see with that (informed by my understanding of Jesus) is that often the programs people want to cut are the ones that at some level, and albeit imperfectly, try to provide a safety net."
Senator Moynihan famously said everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts. Lowering taxes "only if you're serious about lowering the spending" reprises the legend that tax-cuts mean lower government receipts. Past experience says otherwise. When significant tax cuts are made, the result has invariably been a growth in tax revenues from an expanding economy.
Nor were the tax-reduction successes simply localized to the "era" in which they were done. The dynamics of work, earnings, taxes and wealth haven't changed all that much since the 1960s, 1980s or 2002. Yet the fiction persists that spending cuts must "pay" for any tax cuts. I don't object to cutting spending, but the legend usually becomes an excuse for not making the needed tax cuts. (Check Mr. Obama's statements on this in recent weeks.)
With respect to "understanding Jesus," I'll agree that we could all benefit from trying to understand His life and character better. However, history teaches that people have drawn some remarkable inferences from Jesus' life that must have surprised even Him. (I know - nothing "surprised" Jesus. It's "literary license.") Jesus made some pretty radical comments while He was here, but none was about government expenditures, so far as I know. His commands were usually directed at individuals (although He sometimes busted the chops of the chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees, whom he called "white-washed tombs, full of dead men's bones.")
On one occasion, Jesus told a wealthy young man: "Sell all you have and give the money to the poor." The Bible says the young man went away sorrowfully because he had great wealth. But the command was specific to him - not generalized to all of us. Even when Jesus had the chance to say something directly to Pilate, the Roman governor, the scripture says, "He spoke not a word."
Jesus also said, "You always have the poor with you." A Christian friend of mine, who grew up in India, says, "If you give a dollar to every beggar you see, you will be poor - and there will still be beggars." It's tempting to try to get Jesus lined up with "compassionate" big government. Many attempts have been made, but it won't work. Charity is a personal responsibility. It can't be forced by the power of government. My understanding of Jesus is that He was all about a man's heart influencing his personal conduct - including his generosity. Jesus was not political.
"The assumption is that there is a trickle down in other ways (private sector, charity, etc.) that provides jobs and social services. While our culture does a tremendous job of that, in comparison to other nations, there are enough flaws in systemic ways that leave me uncomfortable with that as a non-negotiable strategy. Personally, I am more comfortable with a healthy mix of governmental and private sector strategies."
The "systemic flaws" this respondent mentions are presumably in our system of free enterprise, private charity and limited government. I couldn't entirely follow his meaning, but certainly these are flawed systems. The central question is whether government is smart enough to correct those flaws and give us something better. If the post office and the motor vehicle bureau are any indicators, I have serious doubts about that. This almost mystical trust in government reminds me of the waggish characterization of second marriages as "the triumph of hope over experience."
As for a "healthy mix of governmental and private sector strategies" - I should like to know what that mix (or those "governmental strategies") might be. This evokes the title-question of my article that sparked this whole discussion. Increasingly, I perceive a misunderstanding - notably among young people - about government's "resources." The fact is, government has no resources of its own. There are only private resources - one pot of money, not two. Funds that government distributes or uses to buy goods and services, are private monies taken in taxes or else borrowed from future generations. Every dollar taken in this way is a dollar not spendable on investment, charity, homes, furniture, cars, education, business, or any of the myriad applications of privately held monies. The funds are precious to the owner, so he will try to use them to buy maximum value. But government has no such concerns, not having worked to obtain the funds.
Modern government represents a faith - almost at a religious level in some quarters - that government officials can use private funds more wisely than the original producers of those funds. Yes, we need government to pay for national defense. It can't be done privately. Let's stipulate that. But one doubts if the respondent had that in mind. When I was in high school, national defense cost $50 billion out of a $100 billion federal budget - 50%. Today, it is $500 billion of a $3.6 trillion budget - 14%. We're arguing about the other 86%. Even by standards of most modern politicians - possibly including Democrats - $3.1 trillion is serious money.
"I agree that taking on this much debt is a scary thing. There's no guarantee that the future will be brighter, and I don't know if it will work. That said, it's pretty obvious that neither side has a guaranteed silver bullet. I'm also skeptical of trying to overlay the solutions of one era onto the dynamics of another, as if it's a pill that you can take and everything will feel better. There are obviously a number of things that influence economic growth, including technological change, so I don't think we can just point to the lowering of taxes or inflation as the main reason for the economic conditions of the past 30 years."
President Reagan said, "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem..." I've lived long enough to know that he was more correct than people who think a new dose of (really) big government is worth a try because "neither side has a guaranteed silver bullet." This is not just a toss of a coin. Many of us have seen all this before, and we know it doesn't work. It is a great leap of faith to imagine that Mr. Obama can make it work this time.
It's popular nowadays to say that the current crisis means capitalism (or "Bushism") has "failed," and that only government can save us. However, mounting evidence indicates that government-intervention in the mortgage business - causing a loosening of lending rules - is what caused the pileup of risky or defaulted mortgages that really should not have been lent. This intervention - not a failure of "pure" capitalism - crashed our financial system.
Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) - one of the chief Congressional culprits in the mortgage mess - is running around looking for villains to blame. He's actually holding hearings. (This is a new definition of chutzpa.) A few commentators are calling him to account for letting Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac stuff toxic mortgages into the securities markets, but mostly he has skated by. (Is this a great country, or what?)
Personal Attacks and a Christian Worldview
"If the article wasn't rife with so many personal attacks... then the consistency question... wouldn't matter as much to me. Leaving aside the comparison to Goebbels and Hitler, I would have more respect for the fundamental positions if the same level of 'artful' critique was used against all US Presidents. It makes it hard to get your head around the details when you're wading through the other stuff, unless you like it or are deadened to it. I say deadened because it's not clear to me how some of the language in the article fits into a Christian worldview..."
I admit to being puzzled by the writer's offhand reference to "so many personal attacks." Wondering if my mind was going, I scoured back through the original article to see if I had called Mr. Obama bad names without realizing it. I could find nothing that seemed like a personal attack, unless disagreement with his policies is now considered a personal attack. If so, the respondent gave no clue. (In my old writing teacher's words, it was a "sweeping generality.")
I knew the Big Lie reference would draw fire, but if the shoe fits, I say wear it. By any reasonable standard, the administration's claim that the trillions in new spending will be fully funded with higher taxes on "the rich" is a real whopper. A child could see this. I stand by my assessment. Critics can take their best shot. If we don't learn from history, we'll repeat it.
Exactly which parts of my article are disharmonious with a "Christian worldview" also remain unknown to me, as the writer cited no particulars. But let's turn the searchlight around. Exactly how does destroying the savings - via either a crashed stock market or renewed inflation - of millions of people who worked hard and played by the rules fit into a Christian worldview? And which part of a Christian worldview involves dismantling Mr. Bush's faith-based initiatives or Mr. Clinton's welfare reforms? (The latter helped millions of people get off the welfare rolls and become self-supporting.) Christians might also ponder how Mr. Obama's radical attitudes on abortion - the deliberate killing of unborn children - fit into a Christian worldview. More could be said on this, but we'll leave it for another time.
Years ago, Christian friends sat in my living room and told me they were going to vote for Jimmy Carter because he was a born-again Christian. Later, when they saw his policies and the gang he had brought into office, they regretted doing that. Mr. Carter was undoubtedly a fine Christian, but his liberal party wrecked him. Voters booted him after one term. You could look it up.