A ‘Dreadful’ Tax Plan

A conversation with author and former Reagan administration advisor Bruce Bartlett

Bruce Bartlett served as an advisor in the Reagan Administration, and in the Department of the Treasury in the George H. Bush Administration. He later worked at the National Center for Policy Analysis and is now a newspaper columnist and a New York Times bestselling author. His work includes The New American Economy: The Failure of Reaganomics and The New Way Forward. In October, he released a new book: The Truth Matters: A Citizen's Guide to Separating Facts From Lies and Stopping Fake News in Its Tracks. This interview is taken from an upcoming appearance on the radio version of Zona Politics with Jim Nintzel.

Let's get right to what's happening in Washington. You are certainly not a fan of this GOP tax proposal that's moving forward this week.

No, I think it's dreadful legislation, and the proof of that is that the Republicans are trying to rush this thing through in the dead of night without anybody knowing what the hell is in the legislation. If it's so great, they should be detailing it, all its various provisions, instead of keeping them secret. So I think this is just going to be very harmful to the economy if it passes. I've been saying I think it will have zero impact on growth; it might even reduce it. It's a replay of what was done in Kansas a few years ago, which was a disaster. I think the second the legislation is enacted, all these Republicans, who blithely increased the budget deficit and the debt by $1.5 trillion, will suddenly notice that the deficit is mysteriously and unexpectedly gotten $1.5 trillion bigger. They will insist that spending must be slashed. I think people really need to be aware that this is just phase one of a two part plan to, basically, downsize and decimate the government.

In particular, you think they are going to target the entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare.

Well, they will have no choice because (A), they cannot raise taxes because they've all signed a tax pledge that prevents them from doing so, and besides, it's against their ideology anyway. And (B), defense will have to be exempted because that's what Republicans do; they exempt defense. If you take that out, you take out things like interest on the debt that can't be cut, all you're left with to get serious money is entitlement programs, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Because there's not much left in the government that it does, that you can get hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars of spending cuts out of.

You were actually there for the 1986 tax reform that was done during the Reagan Administration, and that seemed to be a bipartisan project that really took a serious look at loopholes. How does what you're seeing this year differ from what you saw in 1986?

Well, there's no comparison whatsoever. The 1986 Act had, as its underlying premises, that it would be revenue neutral, so the cuts in tax rates were paid for dollar-for-dollar by base broadening, by getting rid of loopholes. And secondly, the legislation was distributionally neutral. That is, that no particular income class got more than any other class. It was pretty even across the board. This legislation has virtually no reforms of any kind in it. It's just random tax increases to pay for huge tax cuts for the wealthy that is going to greatly increase the national debt and lead, inevitably, to cuts in Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security.

Yet, it's being presented as a once in a generation opportunity to do that kind of similar tax reform as 1986. That's really a fig leaf that they're placing on top of this.

I would say it's just a lie. It's just a flat-out lie.

Are you surprised that Republicans seemed to have temporarily—and you predict this won't last long—but they seem to have temporarily lost all concern about increasing the deficit?

No, because this is part of a long-term strategy that I call "starve the beast" that dates back, at least, 40 years. That Republicans one day came to the realization that the only time they can have a chance of slashing entitlement programs is when the deficit is so large there's no other choice. That old line from Yes, Minister, where they tell people, "We must do something. This is something, therefore, we must do it." So people are presented with these fait accomplis that they have no real voice in. I think that is really their strategy. They want to increase the deficit. They love deficits because when deficits are large, they can slash programs for the poor and the middle class. Everybody misunderstands the Republican motivation entirely.

What do you see as the Republican motivation?

To slash government. They hate the government. They want to make it not work because then they can justify further cuts. They're dogmatic. They're driven by an Ayn Rand mentality that the government is, per se, evil and anything you do to cripple it, cut it, downsize it, is, per se, the moral and correct thing to do. They don't actually care about economic growth. If there's more economic growth because government is smaller, that's a side benefit. This is driven by their sense of morality, which says government is evil, must be destroyed.

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