The politics of smaller pie.

Click here to listen to the broadcast of You Tell Me on KTBB AM 600, Friday, June 8, 2012.

In the latest edition of National Affairs writer Jay Cost raises a concept that few of us Baby Boomers have ever had to consider. He calls it “the politics of loss.”

Cost’s premise is that for almost the entire six plus decades following the end of World War II, politics has consisted of arguments over taxing and spending in an era of surplus wealth. Call it the “politics of sharing.”

The post war period was the time of the Great American Growth Machine. Interrupted from time to time by brief and usually mild recessions, the American economy grew at such a rapid clip that politicians were largely insulated from having to make difficult choices. As a result, the domestic policies of Democrats and Republicans were largely interchangeable, differing only on the margins. Democrats like John Kennedy and Bill Clinton cut taxes. Republicans like Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford expanded the welfare state.

Both parties generally supported a robust military and both parties saw fit to expand the menu of taxpayer-funded social entitlements. Generally speaking, politicians were able to reward one group of Americans without unduly penalizing other groups of Americans. The country’s relentless growth permitted a mostly permanent budget deficit, covered by borrowing, the cost of which was borne by ever expanding national wealth.

This is not to say there was no contentiousness in our politics. Those on the far left cried foul when social entitlements were too limited in their view. Those on the far right continually warned of fiscal danger, albeit danger that awaited at some indeterminate time in the future.

Those in the middle, however, where elections are decided, were generally pleased most of the time. As a result, as one political pundit once explained using a football metaphor, American politics was a game played largely between the 40-yard lines – sometimes shifting left of midfield and sometimes shifting right.

This week’s gubernatorial recall election in Wisconsin offers stark evidence that the political game has changed. In an era of much lower economic growth and public spending that cannot be sustained, the argument in Wisconsin, rather than revolving around sharing an expanding pie, revolved instead around loss – in the case of Wisconsin the loss of the lavish pay and benefits packages enjoyed by the state’s public employees.

As Cost explained it in his National Affairs essay, “the days when lawmakers could give to some Americans without shortchanging others are over.”

It’s much easier to reach consensus when you’re talking about splitting up an ever larger pie. But come the time when you have to take pie away, it starts getting ugly. Certainly that was the case in Wisconsin. Unions and the Democratic Party threw everything they had at the Wisconsin recall (save for the personal involvement of President Obama), while business-friendly PACs and the Republican Party threw everything they had back.

If you are among those that long for more civil discourse in American politics, the news for you is that such may be a thing of the past. Going forward, debates will be increasingly rancorous, winner-take-all affairs and bipartisan compromise will be all but impossible.

Lately, the word “no” from Democrats as it applies to whatever Republicans propose has largely worked. While Republicans have put forth concrete proposals such as the budget plan of Rep. Paul Ryan, the Democrats have been able to get away with simply saying “no” while offering no budget plan of their own. The U.S. Senate has not passed a budget in three years and recently voted down the administration’s budget proposal by a count of 99 – 0.

But the result in Wisconsin suggests that the Democrats may now be at a disadvantage that they only just now recognize. “No” may no longer be enough. An actual plan that recognizes the actual math of the country’s fiscal condition will be necessary. It will entail a recognition of the mathematical fact that the “rich” are not rich enough to sustain public spending on its current scale.

Such math flies in the face of what most liberals believe.

This all suggests that as important as the 2012 election undoubtedly is, history will come to see it as just an early battle in what is surely going to be a long and bloody war.

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Paul Gleiser

Paul L. Gleiser is president of ATW Media, LLC, licensee of radio stations KTBB 97.5 FM/AM600, 92.1 The TEAM FM in Tyler-Longview, Texas.

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3 Responses

  1. Linda E. Montrose says:

    All this boils down to is one word…COMPROMISE. Compromise has gotten us where we are today. One party giving in to the other for various reason in order to get their agenda passed. Well, my friends, the day of compromise is over! The word is synonymous with “kicking the can down the road”. The can has been kicked many miles from its starting point and now no one wants to walk back! Game over! Time to man up and do the right thing, not just for ourselves, but future generations if this country is to survive. We can not keep robbing Peter to pay Paul! The borrowing has to stop and our fiscal house needs to be put in order. We can not compromise any longer! The only thing left of that pie…is CRUMBS!

  2. Dr. Randolph Terry says:

    Paul,If I am not mistaken, President Clinton only agreed to cut taxes under extreme pressure from the Republicans and the electorate, but he did reluctantly sign it into law. Yes, you are exactly right that there has been no “appetite” to restrict the large portions of “pie”; however, due the years of overindulgence, we are out of “pie”, and the required denial of this acquired taste will not be pretty. The picture will resemble a spoiled child when denied the treats to which he has become accustomed, or even worse is the picture of the Greeks rioting in the streets when the
    government is trying to wean them from the Socialist nipple. When other people’s money runs out, these spoiled brats can see how they enjoy all the joys of the Third World!

  3. Joe Pine says:

    Yes, the polarity meter has been rising around here since LBJ foisted his Great Society on us. Friends and family members have quit thinking it worth their time and effort to shout at each other over the philosophical divide. Entrenched both literally and figuratively. A fight is coming. So be it. Wars are fought over scarce resources. Hunger is the great motivator. The fable of the
    the free lunch will get more laughs than nods in political campaigns to come. They spent all the money and more of us get a handle on that fact with every passing day. Rotsa ruck.

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