By Sam Laposata
Russell B. Long, the Louisiana senator who was chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee from 1966 to 1981, once summed up the typical American's reaction to the prospect of new taxes: "Don't tax you. Don't tax me. Tax that fellow behind the tree."
The current debate about whether to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire perfectly illustrates Long's point. The middle class says, "Don't raise our taxes. Raise taxes on those rich people (behind the tree)." The upper classes, meanwhile, say they already pay the most taxes, so tax those middle-class people paying a smaller share (behind the tree).
Whatever the tax, most Americans expect that another group should be paying it. As a result, it's almost impossible for legislators to pass new or higher taxes.
I would add to Long's comment that Americans also tend to say, "Don't cut government spending on me. Cut spending on that fellow behind the tree." When was the last time you heard any group of Americans ask the government to slow or stop spending on one of their programs?
So if no one wants to pay more taxes or give up spending, how can we balance the budget while achieving any sense of American consensus?
Since 2001, the federal government has spent more each year than it has brought in. These deficits are large numbers, but they become more meaningful if we look at them on a per-person basis.
For example, the $1.4 trillion deficit this year means that the federal government spent about $4,500 per person more than those people paid in taxes. To erase this deficit through taxes, each of us would have to pay an average of $4,500 more in taxes this year. Or we could cut an average of $4,500 in government services for each person.
Neither of these options is easy, and it's impossible to imagine Congress erasing the deficit either way.
We have a magnificent fiscal problem, and its solution is not simple. As described by Long and extrapolated by me, many people think the deficit can be solved without forcing them to pay more taxes or give up the government programs that affect them. As a result, they elect people who promise balanced budgets but then get angry if those officials propose new taxes or less spending on programs for senior citizens, schools, and other services. Didn't they know they were to solve the problem by taxing and cutting spending on those people behind the tree?
When New Jersey's Gov. Christie began to propose cuts in state spending, much as he had promised to do during his campaign, teachers and senior citizens gathered to protest. They chanted "Save our schools!" and "Save our seniors!" But where were the voices of those who voted for Christie? Were they chanting for him? Not likely.
To solve our fiscal problems, we are all going to have to give up something, and probably a lot more than we think. But our understanding of that reality has been very slow in coming.
I don't envy the task of our newly elected members of Congress, especially given that they didn't make the electorate aware of the sacrifices we'll all have to make to restore fiscal balance. If I had been elected to office promising balanced budgets and tax cuts, I wouldn't be getting too comfortable in Washington.
Everything - cutting spending and raising taxes - must be on the table, or else we will continue to have large deficits, and these deficits are hampering our return to prosperity. We are in a war against fiscal lunacy, and so far we are losing.
I am convinced that Americans can solve any problems that come our way, but we need to start with the cold, hard facts about our problems. We will continue to fall well short of our economic potential until we understand that the solution requires a commitment to reduced spending and higher taxes from all of us - not just the mythical people behind the tree.