Alex Blaze

Reagan's revenge

Filed By Alex Blaze | June 29, 2009 5:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: ballot initiatives, California, government, health care reform, HIV/AIDS, medication, mission work, revolution, ronald reagan, taxes

Ronald Reagan, for years while he was in office, refused to even recognize the existence of the HIV epidemic. The sluggish response to thousands of people dying probably made the epidemic worse than it needed to be. And now that California is looking to cut funding for people's AIDS medication, effectively sentencing a part of the population to die in order to balance the budget through cuts in spending instead of rebalancing the tax burden, the state government has become locked in paralysis brought on from decades of anti-tax rhetoric and policy that makes it impossible to even marginally increase people's taxes.

And we can thank someone's mission work for that. Here's an article from Time in 1973:

During his two terms as Governor of California, Ronald Reagan has never quite lived up to his billing of "Mr. Conservative." A Democratic-controlled legislature has forced him to compromise. Though he has pared welfare rolls and held down property taxes, he has had to raise income taxes. Since he took office, the state budget has doubled, reaching $9.3 billion for fiscal 1974. But to wind up his governorship with a conservative flourish, Reagan has concocted a scheme that would put a constitutional limit on the percentage of personal income tax that Californians must pay to the state.

His plan would take away much of the legislature's power to tax. The personal income tax rate would be set at a probable maximum of 8.75%--the average rate that people in the state now pay. Then there would be a rollback: Each year the rate would drop one-tenth of 1% until a ceiling of 7.5% was reached in 1989. That ceiling could be raised only by a two-thirds vote of both houses of the legislature, with the concurrence of the Governor and the approval of the voters at the next election. Reagan estimates that if income taxes increase at their present rate, state revenues will amount to $47 billion in 15 years. Under his plan, revenues would be $27 billion in 15 years, a substantial enough increase, he feels, to meet state needs.

Fish to Fry. The Governor first took his proposal to the legislature, where it needed a two-thirds vote in both houses to be put on the ballot in November. The bill ran into opposition from Democrats and bogged down in committee. Prepared for that rebuff, Reagan took his proposal to the public. He started a campaign to round up some 521,000 signatures needed to put the proposition on the ballot. To make the plan more palatable, he combined it with a 20% income tax credit designed to refund to the taxpayers $415 million of this fiscal year's $850 million budget surplus. A citizens' group called Californians for Lower Taxes sprang up on command. On its first mailing of 120,000 letters, the group received 11,130 contributions, amounting to $140,000. So popular is the scheme that liberal Democrats are reluctant to attack it. As Reagan says with a smile: "If you're for it, you've got a lot going for you. It's like shooting fish in a barrel."

Reagan, in fact, has bigger fish to fry. Before his second term expires in 1974, he plans to "hit the mashed potato circuit" and make speeches around the country supporting his plan. "There's missionary work to be done out there," he explains. Beyond that, he still wants to be President. He doubtless believes he will be running on the kind of platform that others cannot match: who likes taxes?

Of course, that was the entire point of the anti-tax rhetoric. No one likes to pay taxes, but most people get (or at least got) the idea that you have to pay them in order to have a functioning government and a decent quality of life.

But like the hucksters these folks are, they pulled out their Laffer Curves and racism and resentment to argue to people that they could have social services and lower taxes, since a decrease in the tax rate will increase the amount of revenue the government takes in, and, if that doesn't work, then it's immigrants and minorities who are to blame for the fact that the government can't handle even the most basic services. And it worked - there were plenty of people who were willing to ignore all reason and start to vote exclusively to decrease their taxes marginally, and rich people's taxes enormously, all in hopes that they would have more money when, one day, they too would become rich.

Which is a great way to drown the government in a bathtub after it's gotten small. The cuts that they're making in California right now are really the only way they have to deal with the problem with both the institutional and discursive restraints put on their elected officials. And by cutting those programs, they're making it less and less likely that they'll be restarted when the economy picks up again.

The goal of folks like Reagan to cut taxes, which would force cuts in social spending so that people would come to expect less and less out of their government, thus making it easier to lower taxes again. And then they'd repeat the process. The fact that enough people in that state bought into the myths that surround anti-tax discourse is really a testament to the "mission work" Reagan was doing at the time. Some of his specific policy proposals were eventually adopted by a ballot initiative in 1978, and they're the same ones that are tying up the California government's hands right now.

It all makes me stop and look in wonder as we see just how connected all these conservative impulses are - the anti-tax stuff, the anti-gay stuff, the blame-the-victim stuff, the anti-health-care stuff. Having to pay for low-income people's HIV meds seems like such a no brainer for a state government, especially one in a state that's definitely wealthy enough to handle that burden, but it's not quite that simple if you're afflicted with a bad case of "just don't give a fuck."

I don't think that we're over movement conservatism, not by a long shot. And we're going to see more of its nasty side effects over the next few decades as its chickens come home to roost. Reagan's dead and yet he's still managing to kill people with HIV.

What would be really nice is if we had another political party willing to argue against fiscal conservatism on its merits.

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"What would be really nice is if we had another political party willing to argue against fiscal conservatism on its merits."

We've seen this kind of erosion in Alberta for years, where peoples' own greed is used to lead them down a path where they get less and less and fail to see it. The delisting of GRS, for example, was just the first shot in another round of slash-and-burn of the Provincial health care system. And people are buying it, because they've gradually been driven to things like private health care and don't see that "anybody" is adversely affected. New this year: the Province can now seize your property if they need it for capital or infrastructure projects, and you can't argue about it.

Believe me, Califormia, if you're complacent about this kind of erosion, you'll wake up and find yourself someplace you don't want to be.