Republicans don’t want a tax increase—but a tax increase is exactly what they are arguing for, without quite meaning to.
Put another way: Republicans are gearing up for a fight over raising the debt ceiling—and they say they want spending cuts, except for entitlements, defense, and veterans’ care.
What that takes off the table is Social Security and Medicare, at least, while some Republicans, notably Rep. Jim Jordan, also say Medicaid cuts are not on the table. Together with defense spending and interest on the debt already accrued (the only federal bill that really has to be paid) that represents the great majority of federal spending. Let’s look at last year’s spending for some perspective.
The 2022 breakdown was:
Social Security: $1.300 trillion
Medicare: $1.500 trillion
Medicaid: $1.000 trillion
Defense: $1.200 trillion
Veterans: $0.072 trillion
Interest: $0.736 trillion
Total: $5.808 trillion
(Note: This is by budget function, not by department; that means that the money the Department of Energy spends on maintaining and managing our nuclear stockpile gets charged to defense spending, even though it isn’t in the Department of Defense.)
So, that’s $5.8 trillion off the table if Medicaid is protected from cuts, or $4.8 trillion if Medicaid is unprotected. Excluding Medicaid: Social Security, Medicare, veterans’ programs, and interest payments alone amounted to about 56 percent of all federal spending. Not only is that the majority of federal spending, it is—more to the point—either roughly all of federal tax revenue or $1 trillion more than all federal tax revenue for 2022, if Medicaid is included in the protected, no-cuts category.
In 2022, federal tax revenue amounted to about $4.9 trillion, or 19.2 percent of GDP. Contrary to what some progressives would have you believe, this isn’t a particularly low-tax period for the United States: From 1968 to 2022, tax revenue averaged about 17 percent of GDP. (And, if you will forgive me for pointing this out yet again: During the immediate postwar era, when statutory income-tax rates exceeded 90 percent, tax revenue as a share of GDP was lower than it is today, ranging from a low of 13 percent in 1950 to a high of 18 percent in 1952, back down to 15.4 percent in 1955, etc. Chart here.) So, barring a substantial overhaul of the tax system, it is not very likely that federal revenue as a share of GDP will go much higher, while Social Security and health care entitlements as a share of GDP will almost certainly rise absent some major policy change, given the aging of the population.
And, of course, Republicans are not very keen on tax increases, either: According to Americans for Tax Reform, 189 members of the House and 42 senators have signed its pledge to oppose any increase in taxes. ATR says it “opposes all tax increases as a matter of principle,” and, as a matter of principle, that’s fine, as far as it goes—but as a matter of math, it necessitates that Republicans either make peace with cutting entitlements and defense spending, which they have insisted they will protect from any meaningful cuts (a few Republicans have put forward some largely rhetorical proposals for trimming so-called woke programs in the military, but Pentagon outlays on diversity seminars and the like are small potatoes), make peace with tax increases, or make peace with permanent deficits that will swell U.S. public debt until it produces a fiscal crisis in the United States along with, almost certainly, an accompanying worldwide economic crisis.
There are two ways for a government to think about taxing and spending. One way is the way most of us think about our household expenditures: There is so much money available to spend, and we must prioritize how to spend it. The other way is the opposite: There are certain priorities that have to be satisfied, and government has to collect enough revenue to do so. In reality, every decent modern government does both of these at the same time: There are some things that simply are not optional—we’re going to have a military, and federal courts, and some welfare programs—and the government will have to lay such taxes as are necessary to pay for these; at the same time, some things are optional, and there are limits to what government can take without doing damage to the economy.
If we were governed by sensible people, that would be the basis of our fiscal policy—but we are not governed by sensible people: We are governed by ourselves. And if anybody were to run for Congress with a halfway sane fiscal program that he was halfway honest about, he wouldn’t get halfway to Washington.
That being said, Washington should have about $4.7 trillion in total revenue to work with in 2023. We could probably get that up to around $5 trillion without too much pain through modest tax reform. An upper bound of $5 trillion, or maybe 18 percent of GDP going forward: That’s a lot of money—a fair heap. But it isn’t enough to do the things that Republicans are promising to do, and it is far, far from enough to do the things that Democrats want to do: The debate over on that side of the aisle is whether to give away $1 trillion to former college students, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren wants to do, or to give away $1.6 trillion to former college students, as Sen. Bernie Sanders proposes. Get Democrats talking “Green New Deal” and the figures hit the tens of trillions pretty quickly. While Republicans make irresponsible promises about what won’t get cut, Democrats make irresponsible promises about who won’t get taxed—as though we could have a Scandinavian-style welfare state without Scandinavian levels of taxation.
Everybody likes to talk about taxes, spending, and debt as though this were a moral problem—and, of course, there are moral aspects to these issues. But this is a moral problem inside of a math problem, and the real limits on our options and range of action are economic, not metaphysical. You can cut spending, raise taxes, do both, or do nothing, allowing the debt to pile up until the economy collapses under the weight of it.