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Adam Serwer: The Seriousness Of Cutting Taxes On The Rich

Adam Serwer:

The Seriousness Of Cutting Taxes On The Rich: This week, Rep. Paul Ryan's budget slashing taxes on the rich and medical aid to the poor, elderly and disabled is getting plaudits for "seriousness" from David Brooks.

His proposal will set the standard of seriousness for anybody who wants to play in this discussion. It will become the 2012 Republican platform, no matter who is the nominee. Any candidate hoping to win that nomination will have to be able to talk about government programs with this degree of specificity, so it will improve the G.O.P. primary race.

Yesterday, I went to Charles Murray's AEI lecture on the State of White America which was actually far more interesting than I expected. I won't say much about it here because I'm writing a piece about it for the magazine, but after Murray was finished going over some of his empirical findings, he retreated into the basic platitudes of conservative moral theology. Murray's basic conclusion was that something went deeply wrong in the mid-1960s, an idea that caused everyone in the room to nod their heads solemnly. And the basic thing that went wrong was that President Lyndon Johnson's extension of the American welfare state undermined the essential virtue of the American people by making them soft, weak, and lazy where once they were hard, strong, and industrious. America's decline can be traced to this moment. Liberals laugh at that old Ronald Reagan speech declaring the end of freedom with the advent of Medicare, but conservatives actually think that on some level, he was right. That's the kind of moral outlook that's guiding Ryan's proposal, which basically abolishes Medicare and Medicaid as we know it while shifting the tax burden to the less well-off. 

A sense of moral panic over the erosion of traditional values is present in every strain of American conservatism, each of which posits different solutions to the problem. The dismantling of the welfare state is one, while conservatives like Brooks generally advocate awesome new wars as a way to make Americans strong and awesome again. How lucky for them that both are on the table. 

To answer the implicit question in Kevin Drum's post, the concept of "seriousness" in Washington punditry is closely tied to the sacrifices rich people expect everyone else to make on their behalf in order to rescue America not merely from fiscal ruin but from moral decline as well. 

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