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Economy & Business

Commentary: Death and debt: Don't blame fate for foible

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 17, 2013 - “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves…” --Act I, Scene II of ‘Julius Caesar’

Jack Kennedy once remarked, “Things do not happen. Things are made to happen.” His comment anticipated the now trite observation that “shit happens” and simultaneously refuted the underlying premise of the catchphrase — namely, that events are essentially random. Shit, indeed, does happen; but it does so for a reason.

In Mississippi last week, for instance, one Chris McGonagill was shot multiple times while attending what NBC News describes as a “friendly cookout.” McGonagill later died of his wounds at an area hospital. His alleged assailant was one Wayne “Honkey” Harris, who also sustained two gunshot wounds during the melee.

The preliminary investigation by the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Department indicates that the two men became involved in an argument that escalated into a gunfight during which “at least 13 shots were fired.” As of this writing, it is unknown which man fired first and no charges have been filed.

This mundane tale of ignorance and spite rose to the attention of the national press because Honkey had been a convicted drug dealer until he was pardoned by Haley Barbour last year during his final week as governor of the state. Had Barbour not rehabilitated the felon by executive fiat, federal law would have barred him for life from possessing a firearm. But because Haley in effect un-convicted Honkey, the latter man’s right to own guns was restored.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that the recycled felon might have acquired a gun even if he hadn’t been pardoned. After all, it’s not unheard of for ex-cons to break the law. If he had, however, at least the sheriff would have had legal agency to disarm him before anyone got shot. As it turned out, authorities were powerless to intercede until his weapon became evidence in a homicide investigation.

Decisions have consequences and many of the ills we confront are the product of bad choices coming home to roost. Barbour departed the executive mansion in a festival of forgiveness, granting full pardons to 203 offenders, including four murderers. His actions were controversial and spawned widespread outrage. It should be interesting to follow the progress of “Haley’s Heroes” as time goes on.

Meanwhile, the crisis du jour on Capitol Hill revolves around the need to raise the debt ceiling to avoid default on the government’s debt. In effect, the national credit card is maxed out and failure to increase its borrowing limit could plunge capital markets into chaos. House Republicans demand spending cuts to offset the increase; the president’s stated position is that he will not negotiate over whether to pay the nation’s debt.

The story is generally reported as another impasse between a Democratic executive and Republican legislators. It is seldom mentioned, however, that the problem is a rather predictable outcome of a decades-old strategy known as “starve the beast.”

The theory began to gain traction among conservative economists during the late 1970s. Despairing of efforts to restrain the growth of governmental spending programs, the idea was to force austerity by choking off the lifeblood of taxation. Ronald Reagan likened the effort to cutting the allowance of a spendthrift teenager. Anti-tax champion Grover Norquist hoped to shrink government to a size that he could drown in a bathtub.

During the Reagan years, tax cuts combined with spending increases to produce then-record deficits. These shortfalls were tolerated under the supply-side hypothesis that lower taxes would generate exponential economic growth, which would ultimately more than pay for the immediate loss of revenue.

With the supply-side miracle nowhere to be found and no significant cuts in spending, the deficits grew sufficiently alarming that George H.W. Bush broke his “read my lips” pledge and raised taxes. Budget hawks were aghast. You couldn’t starve the beast if people were allowed to feed it.

Bill Clinton likewise signed a tax increase into law in his first term. He also agreed to Republican demands for welfare reform. The combination of enhanced revenue, moderately restrained spending and a booming economy allowed Clinton to leave office with a $314 billion budget surplus.

With deficits no longer a pressing concern, George W. Bush sponsored tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 while initiating two new wars with no way to pay for them. He also got a prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients passed, thus adding another massive unfunded mandate to the books. Throw in the TARP bailout necessitated by the near-collapse of the banking industry, and the deficits were back with a vengeance by the time W. rode off into the sunset.

The point here is that the present crisis did not just happen — like some unforeseen and unavoidable natural disaster, nor was it merely an episode of unanticipated bad luck. Rather, the case can be fairly argued that it was made to happen by those who wanted to see it happen.

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