The Myth of the Fiscal Conservative



Okay, so the title is a bit of click bait. Fiscal conservatives aren’t a myth, exactly, but recent events in my home state of Wisconsin have helped to drive home just how rare the species has become in the modern political landscape.

With the birth of the tea-party in 2009, it appeared a genuine, grassroots movement towards grater fiscal responsibility and restraint was in the cards. Sure, they just happened to spring up at the same time the scary, black, Muslim, illegal immigrant broke the centuries-long streak of honest, God-fearing white dudes in the White House or whatever, but I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

The reality, however, has been very different. In actual practice, the Tea Party and conservative movement in general appear to have little interest in supporting sane fiscal policy. The examples are legion. Here in WI, GOP Governor and hater of education, Scott Walker, has in recent weeks come out in favor of drug testing the state’s welfare recipients and those collecting unemployment insurance. The most common justification for this policy is to save taxpayers money by removing drug abusers from the welfare rolls on the assumption that if they have money for drugs, they should have money for food, etc.

But like so many ideologically driven policies that sound great in a sound-byte, the reality is much different. Wisconsin is not the first state to try this testing policy. Florida and Tennessee among others have previously implemented drug-testing laws. Florida’s law was short-lived. After a successful legal challenge, it was overturned on the grounds that drug testing welfare recipients amounted to a violation of our 4th Amendment protections against unwarranted searches, a viewpoint I share.

However, Florida’s law was in effect for long enough to test the law’s fiscal justifications. As it happens, of the people tested, only 2.6% of them failed the test, a rate far lower than the admitted drug use of the population as a whole. Not only did Florida’s experience prove many of the stereotypes about welfare recipients being drug-addled lay-abouts completely wrong, but in the final calculus, the process of drug-testing the entire welfare population actually cost state taxpayers more money than what they saved by denying benefits to the tiny percentage of people who failed the test.

Meanwhile Tennessee’s law remains intact for the time being, but their experience trying to catch drug abusers among their welfare population has proven to be even more futile. In the first month of testing, among the 800 people who applied for welfare assistance, only one failed the testing regime. Not one percent, one person total. And while that number is sure to grow in the coming months, a rate of 0.12% isn’t exactly knocking the cover off the ball.

So in review, drug-testing welfare recipients has not only been found unconstitutional by multiple appeals courts, but its central economic justification is actually counter-productive, costing taxpayers more money than doing nothing. If you’re genuinely worried about fiscal responsibility in government, real-world data says you cannot support these laws.

Yet in spite of these objective facts, drug testing people who need temporary welfare assistance remains overwhelmingly popular among self-identified conservatives. Nor is drug-testing the only example of so called conservatives supporting policies that actively tips our national balance sheet further into the red.

On the subject of contraceptive coverage, conservatives similarly undermine their own claimed values of fiscal sanity. As reported by the Brookings Institute, every dollar society spends on family planning services and comprehensive sex education leads to a savings of anywhere between two and six dollars of future costs. It’s not hard to understand why. It’s a lot cheaper to buy a lot of condoms and BC pills than it is to pay for the medical costs of an unintended pregnancy, or to then pay to feed that child into adulthood through the welfare and Medicaid systems.

Texas experienced this directly when they cut family planning spending by $73 million, and then suffered a $230 million spike in Medicaid spending. So what are conservatives doing? Pushing to cut even more family planning services, embrace abstinence only education programs that actually increase teen pregnancy, and do everything they can to drive women’s health clinics out of business across the country.

In case after case, from the popularity of expanding defense spending and excitement for fresh military engagements in Iraq, Iran, and Russia, to the refusal of many GOP controlled states to accept the Medicaid expansion at the cost of billions denied to their state budgets and local economies, conservative voters and politicians consistently support policies and take actions that worsen our nation’s finances and put additional burdens on their citizens.

At last count, the GOP lead House has voted fifty-six times to repeal the Affordable Care Act, despite the fact the ACA is already bending down the healthcare cost curve, has extended the solvency of the Medicare Trust Fund by years, and is projected to save just under a trillion dollars (with a T) off the long-term debt. Repealing the ACA would cost the nation hundreds of billions of dollars, yet they have no plans for what to replace it with once it’s repealed to plug the hole.

On marijuana , which has been proven in both CO and WA states to be immensely successful in creating tax revenue while reducing government spending on law enforcement and incarceration, conservatives continue to oppose legalization.

Even on the topic of same-sex marriage, which has been shown to have a small but measurable positive economic impact on those states where it’s legal, conservative politicians continue to stand in opposition even as support among conservative voters grows.

I’m not saying that a policy’s economic impact should be the only consideration for self-proclaimed conservatives to weigh on the important issues facing our country. Nor am I necessarily saying that their policy proposals are wrong just because they cost more money, (I tend to think they’re wrong for a whole host of other reasons). However, in almost every instance I can think of, when so called conservatives are asked to prioritize the economic impact of their policies, fiscal reality takes a backseat to either religious or ideological purity. Indeed, the one piece of near universal economic policy gospel among conservatives is slashing taxes, especially for the very wealthy, despite the fact cutting taxes (which are already at or near historic lows) simply slashes government revenue and further exacerbates our deficit, growing the debt.

Which is why I can no longer take the claims of the GOP and Tea Party as being the natural stewards of fiscal responsibility and economic heath seriously. In poll after poll of their members, social issues take precedence over fiscal impact every time.

Maybe there are real fiscal conservatives out there, hiding in the brush, afraid to speak out in opposition to drug testing welfare recipients, or in support of wider contraceptive access. Maybe there are some genuine limited-government types who extend their love of freedom and liberty to minorities, women, homosexuals, and the poor instead of only those Americans who can trace their ancestry to landed southern gentry.

People like me, for example. If you happen to see another one of these magical unicorns, let me know. It’s getting pretty lonely out here.

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