Editor's note: A version of this column appeared originally in THE DAILY BEAST.
In the debate on our fiscal crisis, one crucial question is never answered or even asked: if we’re supposed to go back to Clinton-era tax rates because they were good for America, why don’t we simultaneously return to that era’s spending rates?
In other words, what is government doing so much better today than it was then to justify vastly increased expenditures, totaling more than $1 trillion a year in inflation-adjusted dollars?
The question came up during our Thanksgiving holiday, when I honored my personal tradition—which reliably annoys family and friends—of playing cherished orchestral music by the great American composer Charles Ives (1874-1954). “Uncle Charlie,” as he’s become known in our home, was a New England eccentric who wrote rich, challenging, impressionistic scores that draws on folk and popular music to sketch vivid sound images of America of a hundred years ago. “Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day,” his masterpiece for chorus and orchestra, always seems particularly appropriate for our November celebrations. But this year I’ve also spent much of the holiday with his weirdly evocative tone poem “The Unanswered Question,” a mysterious piece for strings behind a probing, insistent trumpet solo.
In arguing for a return to Clinton-era tax rates for wealthy households, with a top marginal rate of 39.6 percent rather than the Bush-era 35 percent, President Obama suggests that Slick Willy cooked up precisely the right recipe for growth and prosperity. The boom times and economic dynamism that characterized the last five years of Bill Clinton’s presidency strongly support that contention. But by addressing only the taxing part of the equation and not the spending levels, Democrats leave out the most important element in the winning formula.