By ROSS DOUTHAT
Published: November 3, 2012
OVER the 40 years preceding Barack Obama’s first term in office, under Republican and Democratic presidents alike, the federal government claimed, on average, about 18 percent of America’s gross domestic product in taxes every year and spent slightly under 21 percent.
Josh Haner/The New York Times
This equilibrium was always going to be threatened by the retirement of the baby boomers. But the financial crash and the Great Recession upset it sooner than anyone expected. As the economy cratered, so did tax revenue, dropping below 15 percent of G.D.P. in 2009. Government spending, meanwhile, climbed to 25 percent of G.D.P., as the president’s stimulus bill tried to help fill the gap left by the private sector’s collapse.
This gulf between taxes and spending has closed, somewhat, in the three years since, thanks to the limping recovery and some halting attempts at deficit reduction in Washington. But a new equilibrium will take many more years of growth and many more painful policy decisions to achieve.
The choice voters face on Tuesday will not determine exactly where this new equilibrium ends up. An Obama second term and a Romney first term would both feature a certain amount of can-kicking and a certain amount of compromise. A President Obama would probably accede to further spending cuts; a President Romney would likely accept the need for slightly higher tax revenue. Both men would continue to run large deficits as long as the recovery seemed weak.
But this year’s choice will make a long-term difference nonetheless. A vote for President Obama is a vote for a future where spending stabilizes well above its 40-year average, and where tax revenue gradually rises — thanks to the leverage afforded the president by the expiration of the Bush tax cuts — to pay for Social Security, Medicare, the president’ health care law and more.
A vote for Romney, on the other hand, is a vote for a future in which we at least try to make the fiscal adjustments necessary to keep taxing and spending at roughly the same rate as under Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
As I’ve written before, there are good reasons that a nonideological voter might be undecided between these two futures. The conservative vision requires making structural changes to popular programs, and asking the middle class to accept further creative destruction in an age of insecurity. The last 50 years of Western European life, meanwhile, suggest that the higher-tax, higher-spending equilibrium favored by liberals can be comfortable rather than dystopian.
But there’s a strong rebuttal to the case for accepting a bigger-government new normal.
The European model of social democracy has its virtues, but it has always depended on the wealth created by American laissez-faire. As a recent economic paper entitled “Can’t We All Be More Like Scandinavians?” points out, it’s easier for smaller countries to afford a more “cuddly” form of capitalism if big countries like the United States are driving global economic growth. And the price of a permanently larger government — in growth lost, private-sector jobs left uncreated, breakthroughs forgone — is much higher for a country of our size and influence than it is for a Sweden or a France.
What’s more, we would be paying this increased price at a very different demographic and economic moment than when the European welfare states were built, or for that matter when our own entitlement system was established.
It’s one thing for a young, fast-growing nation — like the America of the 1960s — to embrace a permanently larger public sector. It’s quite another for a graying society with a stagnant economy and a sinking birthrate to do the same. There’s a risk of a vicious cycle, in which a shrinking working-age population bears the burden of growing old-age entitlements, which in turn discourages precisely the kind of risk-taking and family formation required to keep the system solvent.
Already our government redistributes too much from the young to the old, from working families to retirees, from productive entrepreneurs to protected clients. To accede to this government’s permanent expansion is to walk, with eyes wide open, into the kind of economic and demographic trap that has ensnared the weaker economies of Europe today.
President Obama did not single-handedly put us on this path. But he has kept us on it, accelerated our progress down it, and campaigned for re-election as though taking this course had no downsides whatsoever. He’s the candidate of the Medicare status quo in a country facing an entitlement crunch, of government bailouts in an economy with a crony capitalism problem, and of contraceptive mandates in a society with a birth dearth.
For an incumbent president facing a mistrusted opposition party, this may prove a formula for a narrow electoral victory. But for the country that might vote to re-elect him, it risks four more years of drift, stagnation and decline.
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