||The Lost Fig Leaf
Why the conservative revolution failed.
By Paul Krugman
(999 words; posted
Thursday, Sept. 26; to be composted Thursday, Oct. 3)
"You now work
from the first of January to May just to pay your taxes so that the party
of government can satisfy its priorities with the sweat of your brow because
they think that what you would do with your own money would be morally
and practically less admirable than what they would do with it. ... Somewhere,
a grandmother couldn't afford to call her granddaughter, or a child went
without a book, or a family couldn't afford that first home because there
was just not enough money. ... Why? Because some genius in the Clinton
administration took the money to fund yet another theory, yet another program,
and yet another bureaucracy." The words are Bob Dole's (actually,
they're Mark Halperin's, but Dole said them in his acceptance speech in
San Diego). They are the key to understanding why the Republican Revolution,
which seemed so unstoppable only a year ago, has stopped.
tried to put over, one more time, the fiction that the federal government
takes away your hard-earned money and spends most of it on things that
only social workers want. Supply-side economics, with its promise that
tax cuts would pay for themselves, may have given conservatives the courage
to be irresponsible. But what sold the public on conservatism was the images
of vast armies of bureaucrats and of welfare queens driving Cadillacs.
Conservatives were able to get away
with such stories for one main reason: They could always blame their failure
to slay Big Government on the Democrats who controlled Congress. Then they
suddenly found themselves in control--and the fig leaf was gone. Spinmeisters
of the right are already saying that this election was all about tactics--that
if only Dole were a better campaigner, if only Clinton hadn't shamelessly
veered right, if only Gingrich hadn't thrown a tantrum on Air Force One,
the conservative wave would have rolled on. And they insist that this looming
defeat is only a temporary setback. But the truth is that the political
appeal of radical conservatism has always been based on a fundamentally
untrue vision of what the federal government is and does.
||To get an idea of the
gap between conservative mythology and reality, let's look at the best
book published in America. It's called The Statistical Abstract of the
United States, and if more people would get into the habit of checking
it, our politics would be utterly transformed.
The Statistical Abstract
makes it quite easy to get a realistic picture of where your tax dollar
goes. For example, here is a list of 10 major federal programs. The number
after the colon indicates each program's percentage of fiscal 1994 spending:
- Social Security: 21.6
- Defense: 18.9
- Interest on the debt: 13.7
- Medicare: 9.7
- Medicaid: 5.8
- Pensions for federal workers: 4.2
- Veterans' benefits: 2.6
- Transportation (mainly highways, air traffic,
- Unemployment insurance: 2.0
- Administration of justice (courts, law enforcement,
||There are three important
things to say about this list. The first is that it encompasses the bulk
of government spending--82.2 percent, to be precise. Anyone who proposes
a radical downsizing of the federal government must mean to slash this
The second is that with one possible
exception, these are programs that the public likes--they are not at all
what people object to when they rail against Big Government. We believe
in honoring our debts. We like our strong military; indeed, Bob Dole wants
it stronger. We like our highways. We want strong law enforcement. The
only possibly unpopular item on the list is Medicaid, which is the only
"poverty" program. But Medicaid is increasingly a program of
aid not for the poor per se, but rather, for the old. More and more of
it pays for nursing-home care--and many of those patients have middle-class
And that brings us to the third point:
Aside from defense and interest payments, the U.S. government is now mainly--yes,
mainly--in the business of taxing the young and giving money to the old.
Look at that list, and consider how utterly shameless Dole was in imagining
a grandmother who couldn't afford to call her granddaughter because she
pays too much in taxes. That grandmother almost surely lives better than
people of her age ever lived before, supported by Social Security checks
that will greatly exceed the value of the contributions she and her husband
paid into the system. And her children could easily have sent her the money
for phone calls, except that their Medicare contributions had to cover
her hip replacement.
||There is a good case
to be made that America's gerontocracy has gone too far, that we are too
generous to our retirees, especially to those who could afford to do without
some of those benefits. But that is not a case the right has ever made.
An honest advocate of smaller government would campaign not against elitist
bureaucrats but against nice middle-class retirees in their Florida condominiums.
Somehow, that wasn't in Dole's speech.
It isn't as easy to summarize federal
regulation as it is to summarize federal spending, but the basic point
is similar: Most of what the government does is actually serving, not opposing,
the public's will. Lots of people snicker at snail-darter jokes, but only
a small minority wants to see a repeal of the clean-air or clean-water
laws. And the voters are prepared to punish those Republicans whom they
suspect of belonging to that minority.
Of course, the federal government
wastes a lot of money; so does the private sector (have you read Dilbert
lately?). But the kind of oppressive government, run by meddling elitists,
that Bob Dole tried to tell us about in San Diego exists only in the conservative
imagination. And that is why Gingrich and Dole did not snatch defeat from
the jaws of victory. Their reversal of fortune was preordained, because
their doctrine could not withstand the responsibility that came with success.
The full text of Dole's
Aug. 15 acceptance speech at the 1996 Republican Convention is
on the Web. So are the "more than 1,400 tables and charts covering
over 30 subjects" that make up the Statistical
Abstract of the United States 1994.
Paul Krugman is a professor of economics at MIT whose
books include The Age of Diminished Expectations and Peddling
Illustration by Robert Neubecker