During last week’s vice-presidential debate, Vice President Joe Biden inadvertently raised an interesting question when he dismissed comparisons between Paul Ryan and John F. Kennedy: Which presidential ticket is demonstrating more political courage?
Profiles in Courage, John F. Kennedy’s 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, honored eight U.S. senators who risked their political careers by putting principle above politics. Kennedy wrote in Profiles that courage is “the most admirable of human virtues.” His brother Robert added in a forward to a later edition that President Kennedy was “fond of quoting Dante, who wrote, ‘the hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in a time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.’”
The Obama-Biden ticket is maintaining its neutrality in the face of a great moral crisis that will have a profoundly negative impact on Americans for decades to come if not faced squarely and very soon. President Obama and his vice president continue to act as if the federal government has not run trillion-dollar-plus deficits the past four years. “We just need to get the wealthy to pay their fair share and along with war savings everything will be okay.”
Supposed war savings can be dismissed out of hand as a means of ending the massive deficits of the last four years. The war in Iraq is over (and has been), and the nation still had a $1.1 trillion deficit in FY 2012. The war in Afghanistan is winding down, but it costs a relatively modest $120 billion per year.
Paul Ryan rightly pointed out during the vice-presidential debate that there are not enough rich people and small businesses to pay for the current $3.8 trillion federal spending level (up $700 billion since Bush left office) much less Obama’s proposed “investments.” Romney noted at this week’s debate that the top five percent of taxpayers already contribute nearly 60 percent of all federal income tax revenue (and the top 10 percent of taxpayers pay higher taxes than their peers in most other industrialized nations). So Obama’s fair-share argument does not hold water. Raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans to levels the president has proposed (from 35% to 39.6%) may raise an additional $50 billion and the new Obamacare taxes on investment income may raise a few billion more, but not if raising taxes on job creators — and the businesses they own and invest in — causes the overall economy to slow even more.
In his tax plan, Mitt Romney boldly calls for comprehensive tax reform, including tax cuts, knowing full well that doing so opens his ticket up to class-warfare attacks. As biographer Robert Dallek notes in his work An Unfinished Life, this is precisely the criticism John Kennedy faced from his own party when he made tax reform a top priority. Senator Al Gore, Sr. (the father to the former vice president) said such tax cuts would favor the wealthiest Americans more and “simply cannot be justified. … And I hold these sentiments passionately! This is something that no Republican administration has dared to do; it is something you must not do.” The majority of the Democrat-controlled Senate Finance Committee initially shared his view.
Kennedy responded in an address to the Economic Club of New York in 1962, saying, “an economy hampered by restrictive tax rates will never produce enough revenues to balance our budget — just as it will never produce enough jobs or enough profits … the lesson of the last decade is that budget deficits are caused by … slow economic growth and periodic recessions. … In short it is a paradoxical truth that tax rates are too high today and tax revenues are too low and the soundest way to raise revenues in the long run is to cut rates now.”