Judgment Day Coming To Kansas?

photo of roosting chickens
Cluck You, Governor Brownback

Are the chickens going to be coming home to roost in Kansas this fall? A new SurveyUSA poll suggests it’s a strong possibility:

Brownback is fighting for his life. Democratic challengers Paul Davis and Jill Docking today lead the former U.S. Senator and current Governor, 47% to 41%. 1 in 4 registered Republicans today defects and votes for the Davis/Docking Democratic ticket. By contrast, Davis/Docking holds 89% of the Democratic base. Independents break Democratic by 19 points. Brownback’s weakness among men, where he leads Davis by a nominal 1 point, cannot overcome the Democratic ticket’s strength among women, where Davis/Docking leads by 14 points.

Some back-story (and why I think it’s important) after the jump.

Three days ago in the New York Times, Paul Krugman penned a much-shared column entitled “Charlatans, Cranks and Kansas.” In it, Krugman laments (and excoriates) Republican Governor Sam Brownback’s “remarkable fiscal experiment” of “sharply slash[ing] income taxes without any clear idea of what would replace the lost revenue,” which went into effect about two years ago.

The cuts were, of course – as all GOP tax cuts have been for at least a couple of decades now – heavily tilted to favor the already-wealthy and corporations. This particular round of cuts, however, was noteworthy for at least two reasons. First, Governor Brownback was directly advised on the details of the cuts by none other than Arthur Laffer – he of the famous “Laffer Curve” from the go-go ’80s (notoriously initially scrawled on the back of a cocktail napkin). The Laffer Curve has served as the justification for essentially all of the tax-cut mania that would follow, from Reagan right up until today. It is a part of the tapestry of American politics and economics. So much so, in fact, that it’s somewhat unusual that both it and its creator were so directly involved in this specific round of tax cuts today. Brownback’s cuts also borrow heavily from ALEC’s legislative playbook. So, all in all, a sort of greatest hits/rogues gallery of GOP economic ideas of the last three decades.

The second way Brownback’s “remarkable fiscal experiment” in Kansas was noteworthy is that these cuts were, as Krugman notes, “in percentage terms, the largest tax cut in one year any state has ever enacted.” That means the Laffer/ALEC/GOP/supply-side “magic” effect ought to be greatest here, assuming Laffer, et. al. were correct. But, in a development Krugman notes which will surprise no one who’s been paying attention the last thirty years, both here and abroad, of course “Kansas isn’t booming — in fact, its economy is lagging both neighboring states and America as a whole. Meanwhile, the state’s budget has plunged deep into deficit, provoking a Moody’s downgrade of its debt.”

Go figure.

Krugman’s point in the rest of his column is that it isn’t a surprise these policies failed: we’ve known they didn’t work for years. Instead, Krugman says, the point is: how have these ideas he calls “zombie ideas” (like tax cuts paying for themselves) continued to survive after having been discredited so roundly, so universally and so consistently? Krugman’s answer is that “the enduring power of bad ideas” can be attributed directly to the fact that the real-world results of those ideas (enriching the already rich and protecting entrenched wealthy interests) “serve the right people.” I can’t argue with any of that; it’s clearly true. Rich people want to protect their wealth at virtually all costs, and they certainly have the means to try to do so.

In a democratic system, however, “vote to enrich me and impoverish yourself” is the kind of policy suggestion that tends to lead to the guillotine, if left unvarnished. And so, the wealthy find either usefully deluded ideologues or ethically flexible, credentialed mercenaries who are willing to lend their credibility to dubious theories which mask the impact of such policies. It’s been decades since Upton Sinclair observed “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it,” but that explains quite precisely why useful tools like Art Laffer come up with such baroque explanations for economic policy suggestions which benefit wealthy people but are clearly harmful to the vast majority of (non-rich) voters, which make it seem at least superficially plausible that those suggestions will benefit everyone.

There’s a third piece of that puzzle, however: voters. We are still nominally a representative republic here in America. Every so often, we great unwashed are allowed to go in our millions to the polling places and choose which donation-soaked representative of dynastic power we wish to have rule us for the upcoming term. Many people – far too many, sadly – noticing that no matter which choice is installed into power, the interests of the wealthy always seem to be preserved, stop voting altogether or vote only sporadically, when it’s convenient or something interesting is on the ballot. Many look upon voting as at best an irritating and near-useless obligation, and at worst an ongoing sham designed to give suckers ordinary people the illusion that they are self-governed and their opinions matter.

Except sometimes, they do matter, and it’s entirely possible we’re seeing such a moment this year in Kansas.

Usual caveats and all: it’s quite a ways yet until November, and a lot can change in that time. But if the SurveyUSA data can be trusted, and if it holds, then democracy may be about to function the way it is supposed to: in a self-correcting manner. Kansas voters of all stripes have had two long years to observe the real-world effects of Brownback’s ALEC/Laffer-inspired tax cuts, and they are not impressed, with good reason. Though the effects of such a ruinous budget shortfall have yet to force legislators to make the truly awful decisions that will affect nearly every Kansan on a personal level, many severely, Kansas voters appear to have noticed the absence of the touted upside of all this tax-cutting. So far, Brownback has staved off the worst of the effects by exhausting the state’s $700 million reserves (the “rainy day” fund), but living on savings (or credit cards) only works for so long, and it appears Kansas voters may know it.

Krugman isn’t wrong to wearily conclude that this “zombie idea” (and many others of a similar nature) will simply reappear again, somewhere else where the wealthy feel their privileges are under attack – after all, they certainly have the funds to back such continued political shenanigans. And there will always be the Art Laffers of the world to act as intellectual ballast and the ALECs of the world to act as the shock troops and infrastructure. But if voters in deep, deep red Kansas can see past the blizzard of well-funded bullshit to the ugly reality of what such policies really do to their communities, schools, pensions, etc…perhaps the country has had enough time to not be fooled anymore. After all, as a great Republican sage once remarked:

Indeed, George, indeed. Can’t get fooled again.

Perhaps – I hope – these numbers in Kansas show we’re finally at that point.