Locally and nationally, seemingly everywhere, my senses are assaulted by the color purple.
Purple is the expression of a beau ideal in modern American politics: that just-right mix of red and blue in the eyes of elite media. The fiscally conservative, or “responsible,” social moderate. The live-and-let-live economic libertarian.
In a sure sign that you’re about to read an unconscionable puff job, George Will had a recent column that began with a dateline, in this case signaling an on-location report from Shawnee, Kansas.
Historically, whenever George Will visits someone in person, he is there to sing that person’s praises in a tone of uncritical effusion. His tete-a-tete with “independent”— put another way, purple—Senate candidate Greg Orman is a classic of the genre:
Orman discusses policy problems with a fluency rare among Senate candidates and unusual among senators. From his firmly Republican father, who owns a small furniture store in Stanley, Kan., Orman acquired an animus against “the beehive of regulations”: One regulation is a “pinprick,” but cumulatively, regulations are akin to “falling into a beehive.” He is reading Paul Ryan’s new book, “The Way Forward,” and shares Ryan’s anxiety about how nearly 60 percent of federal expenditures are not subject to annual appropriations. He also shares Ryan’s dismay that a single mother earning about $20,000 can pay, in effect, a marginal tax rate twice as high as the 39.6 percent top statutory rate on the affluent because she can lose government benefits and incur expenses when she increases her earnings.
Orman is anxious about the deficit explosion that will occur when the cost of government borrowing doubles, as surely it will. (“Deficits are nothing more than deferred taxes.”)
Sweet Jesus, if that pabulum is what passes for fluency, then I’ll take my chances with gibberish.
Orman’s apparent migration from Obama 2008 supporter to Mitt Romney 2012 supporter is an example of a kind of summum malum of fiscal politics in the Obama era, dominated as it has been by the doyens of austerity.
Not all that long ago, the Republican party was divided by supply-siders like the late Jack Kemp, whose optimistic faith in the power of tax cuts bordered on cult-like fervor, and more soberminded budget-balancers like Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush. The former were willing to tolerate higher deficits on the belief that lower marginal taxes would eventually finance themselves by stimulating growth and productivity (as late as 2001, Kemp’s protege, Rep. Paul Ryan, was making the case for the stimulus potential of tax cuts during a recession); the latter were willing to raise taxes to close budget shortfalls.
There are, alas, no Bob Doles left in the Republican party, but their graying peers still populate the capital in the form of entities like the Campaign to Fix the Debt.
And for reasons that probably have a lot to do with partisanship, the Kempian cult has gone the way of the (pardon the expression) Dolerite wing.
They’re all austerians now.
The fruits of austerity since the crash of 2008 have been downright rotten. The balance of evidence suggests that American and Europe elite picked the absolute worst time to behave as though the Great Recession was at all similar to those of 1981 (when inflation was high) or 1990-’92 (when bond markets were spooked by high deficits and the threat of inflation).
Throughout the early years of the Obama administration, we ran historically high deficits—and yet runaway inflation has failed to materialize. Washington worked itself into a crippling panic over deficits—a panic that that birthed destructive and mindless politics such as sequestration, the “fiscal cliff,” as well as the by turns comic and macabre drama surrounding the statutory debt ceiling. As a sideline to the unnecessary material pain, the spittle-flecked gamesmanship over annual deficits killed any chance of a bipartisan deal on long-term debt—which is a genuine threat just over the horizon.
What to show for it all?
A toxic political climate, a lengthened employment slump, on top of anemic GDP growth.
Indeed I’d be willing to say that, cumulatively, the politics and economics of austerity have been the domestic equivalent of the Iraq war—an unforced error of disastrous proportions.
But, ah, those short-term deficits are falling, and fast!
Lately, my sorrow at the Preeminence of Purple is in my face, literally, everywhere I turn—in the form of campaign yard signs.
Where I live, in deep-blue Arlington, Virginia, there’s a surprisingly hotly contested race for a county board seat. John Vihstadt, a Republican-turned-independent, captured the seat in a special election in April and is seeking election to a full term this November. His campaign’s yard signs are tricked out in, you guessed it, purple—a nod, no doubt, to the “big-tent Republican” philosophy he touted for the Weekly Standard. The “big tent” here, as always, denotes fiscal conservatism and social inclusiveness.
This local campaign (full disclosure: Vihstadt’s Democratic opponent, Alan Howze, is a personal friend to whom I have contributed money), has turned largely on a controversial project to build a streetcar service that links southern Arlington to neighboring Fairfax County. (This is a portion of the county that’s not served by the Washington Metro system.)
Vihstadt vigorously opposed the streetcar, likening it an extravagant “vanity project” that will detract from the county government’s “core services.”
This argument—which helped to flip 20 percent of registered Democratic voters into his column back in April—is flatly absurd.
For those readers not familiar with Arlington, let me paint you a brief picture: Its government is flush with cash. Its unemployment rate is, by national standards, obscenely low. And it has undergone robust population growth in recent years.
Inward migration into Arlington has in turn led to a school system bursting at the seams with children—this, is in a dense urban landscape already short on open space and, hence, vanishingly few ideal lots on which to build new schools.
Vihstadt has cleverly parlayed concerns over school overcrowding—we’re talking about a city with scads of overeducated, hyperambitious parents who fret about elbow space for their privileged offspring—into a more general disaffection with county-government spending priorities. (That the county board has for years been ruled by an often insular-seeming single party, the Democrats, has only added to the disaffection.)
More than hyperventilation about teacher-to-pupil ratios, however, it’s obvious to me that Vihstadt has tapped into the broader appeal of the Purple. Everyone, including a fair number of NoVA progressives, fancies himself fiscally “responsible.” It just so happens that, in the aftermath of the Great Recession, self-styled “responsibility” has proved to be more like recklessnesses. In an environment of cheap money, low inflation, persistently high unemployment, and crumbling infrastructure, elected officials continue to opt for disinvestment—because, don’t you know, we’re “broke.”
In this current crisis, you, Mr. Purple, are the problem.