Columns » Jay Barth

The era of big(ish) government is back


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In 1978, the voters of California overwhelmingly ratified Proposition 13, the so-called "taxpayer revolt" measure that sharply limited property tax increases in that state. The ramifications of Prop 13 went well beyond property taxes and well beyond California. For nearly two generations, American politics has been haunted by that initiative with nearly any tax increase seen as a third rail not to be touched by the nation's governmental leaders. The result has been decreased taxes across the board in the United States, particularly on the wealthiest of our citizens (as shown by an extensive analysis in the New York Times this week), budget deficits at the federal and state levels to pay for the most essential of services and for the national security needs of the nation, and diminished governmental services for those most in need.

This spirit of small government was summed up, of course, by Republican Ronald Reagan in his 1981 inaugural address: "Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem." Even post-Reagan Democrats, of course, partially joined in the rejection of government as Bill Clinton stated in his 1996 State of the Union address: "The era of big government is over ..."

Clinton continued in that famous quote: "... but we cannot go back to a time when Americans must fend for themselves." The results of the 2012 elections and analysis of the public attitudes that drove those outcomes indicate that it is the sentiments expressed in this second part of his quote that are in ascendance as an era of renewed faith in government shows itself across the country.

On Nov. 6, another California initiative showed that the taxpayer revolt is unquestionably over in that state. Proposition 30, an expansive package increasing income and sales taxes in the state to the tune of at least $6 billion annually passed with nearly 55 percent support. The increased revenues go primarily to education and public safety, two sectors hit hardest by the Prop 13 reforms. Appearing personally in many ads for the initiative was Gov. Jerry Brown; his personal advocacy of the tax increase shows that such measures are now more of a fake log than a third rail. Across the nation, tax increases were passed by voters, particularly when they were tied to an identifiable governmental goal. This was true even in Arkansas, where a healthy majority of voters chose a 10-year sales tax increase to upgrade the state road system. In other states, efforts to make tax increases more difficult were rejected by voters.

Having run, and won, twice on the notion of allowing the highest earners' tax rates to be raised, President Obama rightly feels that he does have a mandate to fight for this change to the tax code. While it remains unclear exactly what components will make up the package of revenue increases and spending cuts that will allow the government to avoid the "fiscal cliff," it's clear that tax increases on the wealthy will be part of the deal.

Most important for future trends, however, are the attitudes of the youngest American voters. They show comfort with expanding government and covering the costs of that expansion. According to the Pew Research Center's analysis of exit polls in the 2012 election, nearly six in 10 voters under 30 believe that the government should do more to solve societal problems. This generation has not voted Democratic because of the party's stances on social issues or the president's distinctive connection with them; they have voted Democratic because of their belief in government.

Let's not be mistaken, Great Society-style "big government" is not on its way back immediately. Republicans who see President Reagan's inaugural address phrase as their mantra remain in positions of tremendous influence in Congress. But, those views are too harsh for the middle of the American electorate. More importantly, they are decidedly out of step with voters under 30 who will soon be in the driver's seat in U.S. politics. For those of us who will be in their golden years when that generation takes the reins, that is a comforting notion indeed.

Max Brantley is on vacation.


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