For me, it's all about the reality of revenue. Absent major reforms to the tax code and the federal budget, we're going to need more of it. More than the federal government receives now. Certainly more than Rep. Paul Ryan's budget proposal envisions it receiving over the next 10 years. And possibly even more than the Obama administration's more generous budget envisions it receiving.
The reason why we're going to need more revenue is threefold, as the above-linked American Prospect study observes: a graying population that will severely strain the Medicare and Social Security programs, as well as state and local budgets; deep-seated public expectations that such programs will continue to exist in something like their current form; and, lest anyone forget, crumbling infrastructure.
The Prospect lays out a realistic liberal vision:
What levels of revenue will actually be needed? Revenues would need to be 22 percent of GDP on average over the next decade just to achieve fiscal balance under either the Simpson-Bowles or Obama Administration budget plans, both of which cut spending in important areas. Avoiding deep cuts and actually increasing public investment in the foundations of prosperity would require federal tax revenues closer to 24 percent of GDP. Meanwhile, revenues at the state and local levels would also need to rise. All told, the United States may be looking at combined federal, state, and local revenue needs in the range of 40 percent of GDP during coming decades as the Boomers retire, depending upon how much debt is considered acceptable.
Needless to say, I don't believe most Americans, accustomed as they are to enjoying big government on the cheap, are prepared to cough up that kind of money.
This is why I'm hoping former Gov. Mitt Romney picks Ryan to be his running mate. President Obama would very much like to run against Ryan's budget, sensing that a majority of voters will reject it. And so they very well might.
So why not have this argument straight-up? And now, not later?
If Obama wins a contest in which the Ryan budget is a centerpiece of the GOP campaign, then perhaps enough Republicans will be ripe for a Bowles-Simpson- or Gang of Six-style compromise next year. Perhaps, under this scenario, enough Republicans will concede that the country can't afford more tax cuts.
Conversely, if a Romney-Ryan ticket unseats Obama, then the Romney administration might have a clear electoral mandate. And with such a mandate, the GOP could begin to honestly reshape the public's expectations about the level of government services it will receive in the future.
As things stand now, both sides are shadow-boxing with alternate fantasies: The Obama administration seems to think that we can preserve the status quo with Clinton-era tax rates and some tweaks to the entitlement system (tweaks that, one hastens to add, many rank-and-file Democrats oppose). And some Republicans have visions of a federal government that, whether or not one accepts the term "social Darwinism," is scaled back to the size it was in 1950.
This November, I'd like to see one or the other of these visions given a good spanking.
Then maybe the country can—finally—get down to business.