The President, shock and awe, and Tertullian

Yesterday, I wrote about the current President's "2 percent solution," that is, his punitive tax raid on the top 2 percent of US tax filers.

The crucial thing to understand about that attack on achievement is that it is a histrionic, not an economic, gesture. Raising taxes on (while simultaneously cutting deductions for) top earners will not do much to improve the Treasury's balance sheet. But it will cause pain among the affluent. It will also cause delight among the more than 43 percent of tax filers who pay no income tax. (Is that fair?) So the President scores two points: he punishes those whom he resents, and he panders to the crowd whose approbation he craves. Tertullian said that one of the pleasures of the blessed in heaven is witnessing the torments of the damned in hell. Tertullian's teaching has been rejected as heresy by the Church, but that doesn't mean he didn't recognize a familiar psychological depravity when he saw it. Taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others is an unfortunate but not infrequent pastime of homo sapiens sapiens.

Many people, I believe, have been stunned by the President's behavior in his first weeks in office. It's been a shock and awe performance. Historians of this period will look back in wonder: how ever did a new President waltz into office and, before he had even finished unpacking, extract $800,000,000,000 from taxpayers for partisan spending programs? Partly, it was a matter of successful rebranding: the President managed to convince some important people that his spending package was really a stimulus package, i.e., something that would help the economy, not hobble it. We know better now, having just suffered the largest post-inauguration market rout in history. But those historians will note with interest how, even at the beginning of March, some reputable commentators still referred to the President's poverty program as "stimulus package."

"Poverty program?" The President likes to invoke LBJ and his "war on poverty." (Imagine: believing that the Johnson administration with its horrible "Great Society" programs was a success, something to emulate!) There is this difference, though, between the current President and LBJ. The latter was misguided and did much to wreck the US economy. But he did not set out to wreck the economy. It was just one of those unintended consequences of good intentions paving the road to economic perdition. The policies of the current President are something quite different. They remind me of that scene in Evelyn Waugh's Black Mischief where the new administration of Azania holds an Imperial Banquet for two English ladies who are campaigning against cruelty to animals. Alas, the young emperor misunderstands their mission. He thinks the ladies are campaigning for cruelty to animals and arranges the banquet accordingly: "We too, in our small way, are cruel to animals," proclaimed one peer of the realm in his opening toast. Just so, the current President seems to think that a poverty program in something that aims to produce poverty.

I jest, of course. I know that the current President doesn't think that poverty programs are supposed to produce poverty and dependence. But that was the effect of LBJ's programs, which seemed expensive enough at the time. The current President's programs dwarf the Great Society programs in cost, and--assuming the are actually enacted--they will dwarf them in effect, too. They will go a very long way in undermining prosperity and circumscribing freedom in the United States. As I said yesterday, those two things are the President's real if unstated goals. He is one of those "theoretic politicians" that James Madison warned about in Federalist 10, politicians who "have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions." Thus it is that the President is so eager to fan the rage for what Madison warned against: "for abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project."

We're still in the first act of the President's melodrama. A few weeks ago, he warned of "catastrophe" if taxpayers didn't fork over $800,000,000,000 instanter. In fact, the catastrophe of this drama is yet to come.