So why did people rally across the country when they should have been planning how to spend their tax refunds? Because their true dismay is about the mushrooming of federal outlays, which the demonstrators regard as a future tax increase in the making. Which, of course, it is.
The problem is not just the spending supposedly needed for the current economic emergency. Obama claims that he will cut the deficit in half, to $533 billion, by the end of his first term. Two problems: 1) The Congressional Budget Office says the more likely number is $672 billion, and 2) that is 46 percent more than the deficit in 2008. Worse yet, the CBO says the deficit will then resume its upward trajectory, reaching $1 trillion by 2018 and nearly doubling the national debt over the next decade.
The realism about expenditures is the encouraging thing about the protests. It's easy to convince people that the government should take less of their money. It's harder to persuade them that the government should provide them less in the way of benefits and services. Yet the teabaggers took the view that whatever Washington plans to provide, they don't want -- not at this price, anyway.
The country has gotten into a painful fiscal predicament because both parties have let us believe we can have more and more goodies from Washington at no additional cost. The recent explosion of federal spending has succeeded in one way: It has exposed that assumption for the fiction it was.
Like Bernie Madoff's investors, we now face the bleak truth that the comfortable future we expected is gone. Everything the federal government is doing will be forcibly extracted from our future earnings. The tea party protesters see that and are angry. Can the rest of the country be far behind?