"Americans really need to ask themselves a question," Grover Norquist and John Lott write in their brief manifesto Debacle: Obama's War on Jobs and Growth and What We Can Do Now to Regain Our Future. "Have people really noticed their lives so greatly improved by the increased government spending that it is worth all this new debt? For example, cutting back the 2012 budget to what was spent in 2008 would leave the deficit at a few hundred billion dollars, instead of more than $1.1 trillion."
That is a good question. And as Norquist and Lott point out, this surge in spending comes at precisely the wrong time, as greedy hordes of Baby Boomers are getting ready to retire and raid the federal treasury. In Debacle, the authors offer a solid chronicle of the government's recent fiscal follies -- from the stimulus to green jobs and from housing to bailouts -- with a focus on the Obama administration.
On the question of whether President Obama has delivered the results he promised, the facts speak for themselves. In Debacle we find the handy graph created in early 2009 by two Obama administration economists to illustrate the expected effects of the first major stimulus. Without the stimulus, the unemployment rate would climb to 9 percent in 2010 and stay above 6 percent through most of 2012; with the stimulus, unemployment would never reach 8 percent, and would fall below 6 percent in April of 2012.
In fact, the stimulus passed, and the economy did worse than it was supposed to do without the stimulus. Here in April of 2012, the unemployment rate is still above 8 percent. And as Norquist and Lott show, the climb out of the Great Recession has been quite slow in comparison with previous American recoveries. Without time travel there's no way to prove a different president would have done better, but President Obama has not succeeded.
Norquist and Lott don't stop at demonstrating the administration's ineffectiveness, however -- they also argue that progressive policies have made things worse. These arguments are a good deal more speculative, and how convincing they are will depend in large part on the reader's preexisting biases. But they are nonetheless a clear explanation of conservative and libertarian economic thought.
If you've wondered how "injecting money into the economy" could do more harm than good, or why so many conservatives blame the "affordable housing" movement for the real-estate crash, Debacle will furnish the answers you seek -- with generous helpings of numbers, and footnotes as a source of further reading.
The final chapter in Debacle, a plan for reform directed at GOP voters and legislators, is less helpful. Much of it is unremarkable: Enact the Paul Ryan plan for entitlement reform, simplify the tax code, etc., etc. But then there's Step One.
The No. 1 priority outlined in Debacle won't be a surprise to anyone who's been paying attention to Grover Norquist: Don't vote for tax increases under any circumstances. A world without tax increases is perfectly acceptable as a libertarian dream; the Ryan plan proves that it's possible to balance the budget (eventually) without raising revenue. But anti-tax absolutism has been a disaster in the realm of practical politics.
The reason we're in the situation we're in is that conservatives and liberals have both gotten the economic policies they want the most. Conservatives have gotten lower tax rates, and liberals have gotten spending increases. In the 1980s, some conservatives believed that by holding the line on taxes, they could deprive the government of revenue, forcing it to cut spending.
The theory was called "starve the beast," but the beast didn't starve, it borrowed. Reading Debacle -- in which it is claimed that "we never get to step two [lower spending] if we fail to stop tax increases dead in their tracks" -- one wonders exactly how high our deficit must go before it becomes clear that tax revenue has no influence whatsoever on legislators' desire and ability to spend.
Of course, this isn't just the ramblings of some dreamer; one of the authors possesses immense political power. The vast majority of congressional Republicans have signed Norquist's "Taxpayer Protection Pledge," vowing not to raise taxes, but not vowing to support spending reductions or reject spending increases. (That's Step Two, you see.) It's only today's taxpayers who are "protected": The young, and the as-yet-unborn, get stuck with the tab for this cowardice.
The absurd ideology behind the Pledge crops up elsewhere in Debacle's reform plan. One recommendation is that in their rhetoric, advocates of limited government should focus on spending, not the deficit. Norquist and Lott seem afraid of the fact that spending is merely a political issue: It's possible to run a sustainable government at a wide range of spending levels. The deficit, meanwhile, is a mathematical issue: If you let your deficit (and thus debt) get out of control, credit dries up eventually, and you're Greece.
We as a nation need to get the deficit under control; we on the right merely want a government small enough that we could drown it in the bathtub. But if we talk about the deficit, someone might notice that higher taxes could be one part of a solution, and we can't have that.
Norquist and Lott also encourage Republicans to reject any "grand bargain" that trades higher taxes for spending cuts. Again, in theory, this could work -- all that needs to happen is for the Democrats to get behind a budget that's at least as austere as the Ryan plan. But that's not going to happen, so both sides will need to give a little.
Norquist and Lott correctly note that grand bargains have gone poorly in the past, with the tax increases going into effect and the spending cuts magically disappearing. But that's a reason to structure future agreements more carefully, not to ignore political reality as the nation careens toward bankruptcy.
All this is infuriating, especially for a reader who's decades away from Social Security eligibility. Still, Grover Norquist will be Grover Norquist. Policy recommendations aside, Debacle is an intelligent criticism of big-government economics gone wild.