In business, if you decide to do a project you scope out the project. You estimate what it will cost, over what time frame it will produce results, and so on. Then you decide how to finance it. There are many, many possibilities: you might finance it by paying for it directly. That’s equity investment. You might borrow to pay for it, which is debt financing. You could also finance it in other ways by having suppliers or customers carry part of the cost. Which option is best depends on many factors, including prevailing interest rates, payback periods, and so on.
It’s easy to get people to have a knee-jerk reaction to the idea of lower taxes, however. So for political reasons, virtually the entire debate has focused on “do we finance our government with taxes (the equivalent of equity) or debt?” That’s been turned into rallying cries about taxes that candidates use to drive elections.
If we were making good decisions, the national debate would be about how we want to spend our money. In 2011, the only large discretionary category is defense at $722 billion(*). If we include mandatory spending, the other large categories are social security, Medicare, unemployment assistance, and health care.
Once we’ve made that decision, we would decide whether it makes sense to fund those measures with equity or with debt. The consequences of debt default would, of course, be included in the financing discussion.
Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans seems much inclined to cut spending. They cut specific items that they’re ideologically opposed to, but they don’t touch the big items listed above. And not even candidates who claim to advocate small government propose slashing the only large discretionary item in the budget, our $722 billion defense budget.
What worries me most, structurally, about debt is that debt has to be repaid with interest. An ever-increasing percentage of our national budget is going to pay interest on debts incurred decades ago, whose benefits have long been played out. If we continue funding things with debt, we’ll be piling up interest payments that could eventually wreck us.
Why do people not like high taxes? Because it brings into stark reality the fact that policy choices have real monetary consequences that we must pay for collectively. We like our highways, and our Medicare, and our defense department. But we don’t like to face up to the cost of those things.
Debt allows us to defer taking responsibility. High taxes forces us to take responsibility immediately. That’s why I favor tax hikes. For the ultra-rich? Certainly; they use far more of our infrastructure than the average person uses (e.g. airports, the justice department, the banking system, etc.), and it’s only fair that they pay their fair share of the common resources they’re using. But for all of us. Taxes force us to make smart choices now, rather than giving us the false luxury of waiting for emergency to push us into harried stupid choices.
And above all, I believe in paying $10 for a $10 expense. When we finance with taxes, that’s what we do. When we finance with debt, we pay $11 or $12, or $20, or $50 for that $10 expense. And I don’t care if you’re conservative or liberal, that’s just plain dumb.
(*) You can see the budget numbers here. Try clicking “hide mandatory spending”: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/02/01/us/budget.html