Why Conservatives Learned Nothing From Sam Brownback's Failure

Kansas governor Sam Brownback had a plan when he got elected in 2010, and it was a plan that could only be enacted in a place like Kansas: Pass huge tax cuts, then watch the state transform into a kind of economic heaven on earth. Brownback surely could never have doubted it would work, since he and those in his party have been saying for decades that tax cuts deliver economic growth, rising tax revenues, general happiness, and shinier, more manageable hair.

You've probably heard the story: growth in Kansas did not, in fact, explode, but what did happen is that revenues plummeted, leading to severe cutbacks in education and other state services. Brownback nevertheless managed to get re-elected, because it was a non-presidential year and because it's Kansas. So now he's had a chance to reflect, and here's how he's looking at things, according to a Topeka newspaper:

As Gov. Sam Brownback's first term comes to a close, the Republican governor has one regret — no, scratch that — one thing he would do differently.

"I probably would have chosen words better at different times, because you go through a campaign where you've got to eat the words you inartfully said," Brownback said during a recent interview with The Topeka Capital-Journal.

The former U.S. senator — with the help of a Republican-controlled Legislature — slashed taxes, privatized portions of state government and pursued a staunchly conservative policy agenda during the past four years. And then Brownback fought off a competitive challenge from Democratic Rep. Paul Davis.

Atop the list of words and phrases that have proven controversial and given his opponents the greatest opportunity for mockery: predicting the Kansas tax cuts would act as a "shot of adrenaline" to the state’s economy and referring to the plan as an "experiment."

In other words…

It's obvious that he regrets calling it an "experiment" for no reason other than that word showed up in a bunch of Democratic attack ads. But as for the idea that tax cuts would give the Kansas economy a "shot of adrenaline"? Of course that's what he said, because that's what he believed. If you don't believe that, you can't call yourself a Republican.

It isn't that there's no truth to it—all else being equal, tax cuts put more money in people's hands, so they can spend more, which will have some positive impact on the overall economy. The problem is that 1) the effect is never as large as Republicans expect it to be; 2) not only did Brownback's tax cuts go mostly to the wealthy, who are less likely to spend the money, he actually raised taxes on poor people (there's an explanation here), and 3) the benefits were swamped by the harm created by the inevitable cratering of state revenue.

But if you're Sam Brownback, how do you account for such an outcome? It can't possibly be that the theory on which the entirety of contemporary Republican economic policy rests is false. What's he going to say—"It turns out that tax cuts don't do much good"? Not in this universe.

It's not just him. The failure of Brownback's experiment may provide an effective rhetorical tool liberals can use against conservatives in economic debates, but it won't actually change any conservatives' thinking. The reason is that their belief in tax cuts doesn't rest on the practical effects. That's an argument that's meant to appeal to everyone, since it concerns something (growth) that just about everyone thinks is good. But the real source of the conservative support for tax cuts is moral, not practical. They believe that taxes are inherently immoral — the government stealing from you the fruits of your labor (or inheritance or wise investments, as the case may be) to enact its nefarious schemes. Taxes should therefore be as low as possible. Conservatives also tend to believe that progressive taxation is doubly immoral, since it takes more from the most virtuous among us.

So my guess is that Brownback sees his experiment as a practical failure but a moral success, and other conservatives would agree. Not that he'd say so in quite those terms, because he knows how it would sound. But the only lesson he's learned from his failure is to change the words he uses. 

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