Want to make some really easy money? Do you want to be rich, filthy rich, like your stockbroker before the '87 crash? Do you want to live in a big, fabulous house with whirlpool jets in the master tub? To send your kids to fancy private schools? To cruise about town in a brand-new German luxury sedan?
Aha! You do, you greedy little piglet. You have been smoked out as just the social scofflaw you truly are. You care nothing about your fellow man, your community, the deeper human values. You are a small, small human being. And it is greed—your greed—that is tearing our once-lovely nation apart. From the S&L fiasco to the recession to the homeless problem to the towering federal deficit, it's all your fault. Go to your room!
You've heard it before; you'll hear it again: Greed is that virulent biological agent released into the body politic on or about January 20, 1981, by that evil public-policy dominatrix, Nancy Reagan. In Nancy's Roaring '80s, rich was in and everyone clawed for the big bucks. (Don't be so garish as to point out that the 1970s were dubbed the Me Decade, and that—really—they occurred before the '80s.) And today we are nursing the societal hangover.
It is a very cute story line and would make a swell Movie of the Week (surely starring Joan Collins as Nancy). But TV Guide would have to list it as New Age Fantasy. The S&L execs were no more or less avaricious in the '80s than before (although the formerly honorable Jim Wright, Tony Coelho, and Alan Cranston became a bit more ambitious in their constituent-service offerings); nor did private charity dry up (per-capita contributions doubled during the '80s); nor did the growing economy hurt the poor (it created millions of jobs for recent immigrants and other people with modest skills, which tends to drag down average wages). But hey, if it gets ratings, let's go with that greed thing.
The press will play the greed story big-time from now until Election Day. It is an attack on you, the voter: You want lower taxes but higher spending. You want to give government less but demand that government give you more. You want it all—and it is your selfishness that is ballooning the federal deficit.
Well, wake up and smell the decaf. The ballot choice we give you does not allow, let alone force, a reasonable squaring of the costs of government with its benefits. It's slipshod accounting and creates perverse incentives, but it's surely not the individual voter's fault. The voter is asked, on a categorical basis: Do you want lower taxes? Next, the voter is asked, without qualification: Do you want more government spending on social services? What kind of knucklehead wouldn't answer yes to both questions?
Economist Mark Zupan notes that voters actually try to solve this dilemma in a reasonable way, by voting for a Republican president (better to limit total spending) and a Democratic congressman (better to allocate some of that spending to the home district). Zupan also finds that this executive/legislative ticket splitting trickles down to state and local rates. Until the gamesmanship of pork-barrel politics is routed by giving folks a chance to vote on spending as a whole, voters will continue to do what is logical.
Meanwhile, a truly and amazingly selfish campaign now being waged for votes is receiving lavish praise in the press. Sen. Harris Wofford's "America First" barnstorming overwhelmed the too-respectable Richard Thornburgh in Pennsylvania, and the craze is sweeping the country. Forget about democracy for Russia and the Ukraine; starvation in Kiev is nothing compared to the folks back home who have to drive that '88 Ford Bronco an extra year.
Playing to fears of economic hard times, scaring the home folks with talk of drowning in a sea of Asian imports (David Duke loves this Gephardt protectionist line, too), the message is clear: Making the world safer or freer for millions of (poor) people who live far away and have no electoral votes is a big waste of time. Mean-spirited, selfish, short-term piggishness inspired by the Reagan years?
In the wonderful film Dangerous Liaisons, a mercilessly womanizing viscount (John Malkovich) attempts—on a dare from a cruel-hearted noblewoman (Glenn Close)—to seduce a pure, beautiful, and very married contessa (Michelle Pfeiffer). To attract her attentions, and to deflect his own scandalous reputation, the viscount arranges to visit the shack of an impoverished peasant family on the very day they are being evicted by guards of their cold-blooded lord. Flipping the pathetic innocents a few gold coins, he not only earns their undying loyalty by putting off their ultimate destitution by a few weeks, he actually ends up scoring with the contessa.
Ostentatious tosses of gold—grabbed out of other people's satchels—currently constitute purity of public spirit in America. "Boldness" is demonstrated by the more aggressive grabbing and the more ostentatious tossing. To raise taxes has, incredibly, become a statesmanlike display of political self-sacrifice.
In the bitterly sad Liaisons, the contessa is tricked into falling madly in love with the viscount. She promptly dies of a broken heart. I don't believe the taxpayers today enjoy quite this level of romance, although the pain is mounting. If the taxpayers are greedy in their desire to hang on to their precious nuggets, the question arises: How is it altruistic for the statesman to snatch them?
Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Selected Skirmishes: Pigs!".