Ezra Klein's op-ed in yesterday's LA Times helps illustrate the way the Bush administration has effectively begun to turn the way Americans think about government -- and not in the direction it wanted them to turn.
Conservatives talk a lot about government failure, but over the last few years, it's really we who have failed government, depriving it of the revenue, the conscientious management and the attention needed for it to succeed. Undercapitalize a pizza joint and your customers will taste the poor ingredients, become frustrated by the long waits and grow repulsed by the grimy environs. Staff it with your unmotivated drinking buddies and the service will falter, as will the quality of the product. It's no way to run a pizza place, and it's certainly no way to run a government.Substantively speaking, the grand conservative ideological crusade "against" government has never been about achieving any real transformation of American political economy; it has been a mechanism for profiting politically from the periodic tax revolt, and it has been an excuse for a malign neglect of public services. There has never been a libertarian paradise on offer, just cynicism and deterioration (Rick Perlstein has been doing a great job of documenting that deterioration as manifested in unglamorous but critical areas like water infrastructure and food safety).
But that's exactly what we've done. With Proposition 13 and the famous California tax revolt, and with presidents whose entire domestic programs amounted to mindless tax-cutting, and with Congresses that have been happy to pass cuts and stack deficits, we have systematically deprived the government of the revenues it needs to provide basic services, even as we've come to need it to do so much more.
The Bush administration has only added to the problem.... Not only have we spent more than $500 billion in Iraq and Afghanistan and untold more on homeland security measures, but we've created, in Medicare Part D, the most expensive new entitlement since President Johnson signed the Great Society into existence. We've also increased education spending through the No Child Left Behind Act.
And during all this, tax cuts have robbed the Treasury of $200 billion in revenue; the need for a two-thirds majority in the Legislature impeded the flexibility of California to raise state taxes to compensate, while Proposition 13 continued to handicap our municipalities. All that money has to come from somewhere. And the "where" isn't the high-profile initiatives that the media is watching — the Medicares and Social Securities (although they may suffer too) — but from the smaller, less-noticed, but critically important programs and departments that millions rely on.