Why Voters Will Get a Lot Angrier

The real earthquake will hit when Washington raises taxes and cuts services.


 If you think this is a political revolution, just wait a couple of years.

Tea Partiers and status-quo destroyers are ecstatic at the spectacle of Washington bums—sorry, incumbents—being thrown from the parapets they've held for decades. Party swapper Arlen Specter will be heading home after 30 years in the Senate, bounced in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary by a relative newcomer, Joe Sestak. Republican stalwart Bob Bennett of Utah is departing from the Senate too, a victim of the insider status that used to count as an asset. In the Kentucky primary, Republican voters stiffed their party's anointed candidate and instead elected bomb thrower Rand Paul. "I have a message from the Tea Party," Paul roared. "We've come to take our government back."

[See 6 things missing from the economic recovery.]

Insurgent voters seem likely to produce a lot more upsets by election time in November, as disgust with Washington mushrooms into electoral revolt. But the reformers sent to "take government back" might end up wishing they had left it in the hands of those stale Congressional lifers.

Voter outrage in 2012 or 2014 could make the quarrels of 2010 seem like a Victorian debating society. It's a matter of simple math. Within the next few years, government leaders will be forced to make some of the most painful decisions in decades. The U.S. government now spends something like $1 trillion more per year than it takes in, borrowing the difference. With the national debt approaching dangerous proportions, this must end, or else the mighty United States will end up hamstrung like Greece, begging its creditors for forbearance. And there's no way to spare middle-class voters the pain this is going to cause.

Slogans make the problem sound simple, but Tea Partiers heading to Washington will quickly discover that solutions don't fit in the palm of one's hand. Shrink government? Okay, good start. Medicare, Social Security, and veterans benefits account for about 35 percent of all federal spending, a percentage that's going up. So cutting payments to Baby Boomers and veterans will save a lot of money. Medicaid, food stamps, and other aid to the unfortunate accounts for another 20 percent or so, and not all of those people vote, so maybe you could cut that altogether. National defense accounts for 20 percent of federal spending, and you might conclude that fears of terrorism are overblown, allowing some cuts there. Foreign aid, federal AIDS research, safety inspectors, and all those government agencies account for less than 25 percent of all spending, so maybe nobody will notice if you take that down.

[See what Washington needs to learn from Greece.]

Or, you might decide that there's a better approach than enraging two-thirds of the American population by eviscerating the government subsidies and services they've come to count on. Instead, you could raise more revenue to pay for all those services. Unfortunately, the nation doesn't have nearly enough rich people to pay down the debt, even if you taxed their income at 90 percent. So you'd have to target everybody else. You could eliminate the various tax deductions that have piled up over the years, raise taxes on individuals and corporations, or institute a new value-added tax that would raise the price of most consumer goods and services. Since voters and lobbyists tend to perk up when the government takes their money, you'd have a steady stream of visitors, E-mails, and phone calls to make you feel welcome as you settle in to the nation's capital.

If that seems too abrupt, you could inflate your way out of the debt, explaining to voters that double-digit interest rates and a skyrocketing cost of living are really in their best interest. Or you could take office and do nothing at all about the debt, like the politicians in Washington now. Just make sure you have reservations at a secure bunker in an undisclosed location on the date that the U.S. government's vast ponzi scheme begins to implode.

[See why a rising unemployment rate is good news.]

Voters are cranky now because the economy stinks, unemployment is high, Washington is out of touch, and the usual Beltway dickering for political advantage does nothing to improve the nation's fortunes. But amid this discontent, Washington is still giving voters a free ride by offering services and subsidies that will have to be paid for in the future—by the same people who are recipients of the largesse today. When that bill comes due, Washington will have no choice but to ask taxpayers for more, give them less, and try to explain why sacrifices are suddenly necessary. The winners in November will be the incumbents when that earthquake hits. They want to take government back? They can have it.