I’m sure it would come as a surprise to many conservatives to learn that most Americans who could be described as politically liberal or moderate don’t enjoy paying taxes any more than they do. And most share a healthy skepticism of government’s ability to solve all of our problems – sometimes more so than conservatives. For example, it was absurd to expect that government policies, no matter what they were, could dramatically reverse the deepest economic recession since The Great Depression, in just two years. Yet Republicans, the anti-government party, harnessed and rode a wave of national dissatisfaction with the failure of a Democratically-controlled government to accomplish that impossible task.
However, it’s difficult to see any good coming from the sort of pervasive and mindless hatred of government that seems to permeate the right-wing of the GOP these days, driven even further to the extreme by the Tea Party. Furthermore, the GOP’s anti-tax crusade promises to do great damage to the country’s ability to flourish economically in the future.
Take education, as one critical example. By most measurements, American children lag many of their peers among advanced nations. There are plenty of reasons for this state of affairs but a key one, surely, is that American K-12 students spend up to a year less in school than children in many countries since we have one of the shortest school years (180 days compared to 200-225 in most advanced nations). To increase the length of the school year, as President Obama has rightly called for, would add billions to states’ education spending at a time when they are suffering massive budget shortfalls and painful cuts to services, including education.
American children underperform in math and science, in part because of a shortage of well qualified teachers at middle and high schools (precisely the levels where our children fall behind their international peers). And the shortage is exacerbated by our inability to produce enough math and science majors at our universities from which to recruit the best and brightest for our K-12 schools, the result, in turn, of our inadequate education in those subjects. A perfect and pernicious circle in fact.
In the best of all worlds the federal government would make the necessary investment to help states meet these needs, perhaps with financial incentives via a revamped No Child Left Behind Act. However, the chances of making those investments, which to the GOP is simply another word for spending, are almost zero in the current political environment.
For the GOP, it’s evidently fine to extend tax cuts to America’s wealthiest citizens, thereby increasing the deficit, but not to invest in our children to the extent necessary in order to ensure a decent future for them. This is acute myopia by any reasonable standard.
And what do the likes of Rand Paul, GOP senator and Tea Party darling, have to say on the subject of education? Well according to his website his highest priority is homeschooling through bigger tax breaks. Yeah that’ll fix everything. He also blames the federal Department of Education which, as any informed politician should know, has far less of a role in educating our children than do states. In fact, as a candidate in the 2010 mid-terms, Paul opined that education was best left to states and local school boards, a position that might carry more weight if he was from Massachusetts and not Kentucky. Of course the fact that his state’s children perform in the bottom ten of all states in a country that places 27th in math achievement internationally might explain his retreat into homeschooling la-la-land.
What is desperately needed in America is a long overdue and informed debate (as free of demagoguery as possible) on the role of government and the nation’s critical needs. It is a disservice to the nation for the GOP to relentlessly promote tax cuts as the cure for everything that ails us, while pressing for serious cuts to discretionary spending without any thought to the consequences. And it is ludicrous to exclude the defense and homeland security budgets from any discussion of long term spending reductions.
Similarly, Democrats cannot take entitlements such as social security and Medicare off the table. We can no longer afford to shield the nation’s seniors from the threat posed by a growing and unsustainable national debt when our children’s needs are not being met.
For any of this to be possible, the GOP must rein in its extreme elements and give the anti-tax crusade a rest. Government is not the enemy – it never was.