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WEB EXCLUSIVE | SCOT LEHIGH

Borrow-and-spend conservatism

THE BILLS are piling up at home, and I have to admit, it's having an effect on my political philosophy.

I'm thinking of becoming a conservative.

If you're one of that vanishing breed of traditional conservatives, perhaps you think you can guess my motivation: If I could help bring about a leaner, more limited government, I might ultimately see less of my paycheck disappear in federal taxes.

Oh, you poor naif. Sorry, but that thinking is so pre-supply side as to be positively antediluvian. Why, it's as ancient and outmoded as the hoary notion of sober, Main Street, balanced-budget Republicanism.

Actually, my thinking is much more basic: These days, being a conservative means you don't have to pay your bills at all. You just pass them on to the next generation.

At least that's my conclusion from studying the complex combination of ironclad rules and unspoken assumptions that guides the modern right.

Let's start with a case study that shows the rules in action.

Hurricane Katrina recently devastated New Orleans and wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast.

It took a while for the news to reach the Bush administration, but once the Pony Express finally arrived, the president sprang into action. He's now called for a huge rebuilding effort, one that's apparently going to cost at least $200 billion, and perhaps a good deal more.

Given that the federal government is already spending some $300 billion a year more than it takes in, the interesting question arises of just how the reconstruction will be paid for. Some have suggested a tax increase on the well-to-do.

But this is where Rule Number 4 of modern conservatism comes into play: You just don't raise taxes after a national disaster. US Representative Mike Pence, Republican of Indiana and chairman of the so-called conservative caucus, explained it this way to The New York Times: "Raising taxes in the wake of a national catastrophe would imperil the very economic growth we need to bring the Gulf Coast back."

I have to admit, that was a rule I wasn't familiar with. (Like Harriet Miers, I'm apparently going to have to do some cramming for my new role.)

But since George Bush took office, I've become very familiar with Rules 1 through 3, all of which pertain to cutting taxes.

Here's Rule Number 1: If you have a big surplus, there's an urgent need for a tax cut, both to remove the temptation for government to spend the largesse and to give taxpayers their money back. (As a moderate, I'm somewhat sympathetic to that argument, though I've also thought it might make sense to consider the nation's long-term needs first.)

Then there's Rule Number 2: If the economy seems to be sliding into recession, there's a pressing need for a tax cut to stave off economic bad times. (I'm still not sure I understand why that tax relief has to be targeted disproportionately to upper earners, mind you, but then, I'm just trying to master the basics.)

Rule Number 3 dictates that you may need another round of tax cuts if you're stuck in a recession. Even liberals tend to agree with that proposition, of course.

Still, in the old days, if you went to war, thus adding huge new expenses, it meant you probably needed to raise taxes.

Not under modern conservatism, however. It turns out that even in times of war, Rules 2 and 3 hold sway — even if the taxes you're thinking of hiking would be on the well-to-do.

Well, surely you can increase taxes when your economy finally seems to have made its way back to firm ground?

Sorry. Not if Rule 4 — that is, a recent national disaster — applies. So how about at least letting some tax cuts whose main benefit goes to the well-to-do expire? Or perhaps canceling upper-earner tax breaks that have yet to take effect?

No, Rule 5 prevents any such action. Call it the Pence proviso. As he further told the Times: "To allow tax cuts to lapse is a tax increase and the economy would suffer."

I know all this is confusing, so let me simplify.

If you're a modern conservative, it's always a good time to cut taxes and it's never an acceptable time to raise them.

Well, then, what about cutting spending? Here's where important but unspoken assumptions come into play. Because these aren't publicly discussed, they can be hard to deuce out. But after long study, I think they can be reduced to two:

1) Slashing the budget to the level the Republican tax policy would actually sustain would mean sharp reductions in government programs, a voter backlash, and, in all likelihood, fewer Republicans in Congress after the next election.

2) A majority of the voting public isn't focused on, or isn't economically knowledgeable enough to fully understand, the long-term effects of the massive borrowing the federal budget now requires.

Still, isn't Republican borrow-and-spend economics a cynical policy?

Sure. But until more people recognize it for that, there's no political penalty to pay.

And in that light, you can certainly see why modern conservatism is such an appealing philosophy.

For its practitioners, that is.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com.

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