Matt Miller - The Archives

This is your brain on sequester
The Washington Post, February 27, 2013

If only the president's $3 billion initiative to map human brain activity had been completed by now, we might have the tools to make sense of the carnival that pre-sequester Washington has become. Alas, since the science won't be in for years, we can only hypothesize about what corner of the neocortex is driving our leaders' behavior as this latest fiscal precipice draws near.

The first critical but virtually undiscussed question is what portion of the president's brain (or brain trust) led him to extend 82 percent of the Bush tax cuts on Jan. 1. Recall that even as the sequester was kicked down the road then, President Obama could have let all the Bush tax cuts expire before coming back with big-sounding tax cuts of his own—tax cuts that would have involved far smaller revenue losses over time than had Bush's.

Even if Republicans grumbled at first (and secretly prayed for the economy to tank), they would in short order have supported those new tax cuts. When the dust cleared we'd have lifted revenue closer to what's required for our aging population.

Instead, after Democrats spent a decade griping that the Bush tax cuts were a boon only for "the rich," they decided that Bush had in fact been correct all along in claiming they benefited everyone.

The fallout from this choice can be seen in two facts that decisively shape the current moment. First, revenue was left far below what will be needed as the boomers retire. Second, Republicans feel they can't possibly let the president go back to the well on taxes less than 10 weeks later.

The White House, for its part, plainly reckons it can come back every other month with a fresh plan to "just tax the rich" and the public will cheer. But when Washington's "false equivalency" police say it's unthinkable to argue that the president helped author today's impasse, they're forgetting it was in the president's power to make the inevitable post-Jan. 1 showdown a debate about how big the tax cuts should be that accompany legislation to scrap or modify a senseless sequester. (It has likewise been the president's choice not to level with Americans that our aging population will mean higher taxes of some kind on all of us—but that's another column).

Scientists will also have their work cut out decoding the president's split brain on defense. The president leads the party that rightly argues we should shrink the Pentagon to something more like a triangle as part of a broader plan of nation-building at home (a position interestingly held by some rising military officers as well). Yet Tuesday he went to a shipyard to argue yet again that a roughly 8 percent trim after military spending doubled in the last decade would be devastating. Huh?

The GOP's confusion and denial are, if anything, more profound. Even as their attacks on government in the abstract remain as shrill as ever, big-name Republican governors are admitting that Obamacare's Medicaid expansion (while imperfect) promises too much health security for too many of their struggling constituents to be spurned out of ideological pique. Again, purely as a matter of science, it would be great to know how Florida Gov. Rick Scott's and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's brains manage to order their mouths to rail against the feds while instructing their hands to pocket the cash.

The more comical GOP brain burp can be seen in the overdue effort by conservative thinkers to craft an agenda that might help average Americans improve their lives. The president is usually the one mocked as remote and Spock-like, but it's Republican politicians now who seem mysteriously robotic and disengaged. "Hmmm," Republican officials seem to be saying, as their policy wonks serve up relevant new ideas, "these humans apparently crave opportunity and security. Most interesting..."

The workings of the brain may be more than a $3 billion question, so the president should be forgiven if he first greenlights the grants that help us penetrate the Republican mind. Still, taking the broadest point of view (not to mention the citizen's), this sequester spectacle is disturbing. The ability to reason, and thus ultimately to cooperate, was supposed to be the thing that distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom. That, and the opposable thumb. The more our endless fiscal cliff rolls on, the more truly unique that thumb is looking—and the more intent Washington appears on proving that the ascent of man is bunk.