In a 1932 opinion, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis coined the phrase “laboratories of democracy” to describe the role of state governments in providing test platforms for new laws that could, if successful, be adopted at the federal level. Grounded in the Tenth Amendment’s stipulation that “all powers not delegated to the United States, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively…” the concept caught on, and has been linked to much good legislation, not least of which is the Affordable Care Act, which was closely modeled on the Massachusetts health plan developed under Governor Mitt Romney.
Meanwhile, a good deal of experimentation at the state level has been undertaken by a cadre of Republican governors intent on proving various aspects of supply-side economics. A quick survey, however, reveals little in the way of success stories.
Take Maine’s Governor Paul Lepage, for example, who recently vowed to veto every Democrat-sponsored bill that crossed his desk until the legislature agreed to pass a referendum on his new tax plan. (Never mind that said plan involved scrapping the state’s income tax in the absence of clear sources of alternative revenue.) Making good on his threat, Lepage moved forward with plans to pocket-veto 19 bills, a strategy that would render them moot. The scheme back-fired, however, with the discovery that, under the prevailing circumstances, the pocket veto did not apply, and in the absence of action from the executive the bills have automatically become law. Now, adding to the irascible governor’s woes, growing numbers of Mainers are calling for his impeachment.
The episode followed on the heels of a visit from Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, who visited the Pine Tree state shortly after kicking off his presidential campaign. Still very much under a cloud from last year’s “Bridgegate scandal,” in which he was implicated in vengeful political tactics similar to those of his host, Christie–whose fiscal policies have resulted in no less than seven downgrades of his state’s credit rating–took the opportunity to give a ringing endorsement of Lepage’ policies and general combativeness. By all accounts, Mainers were as underwhelmed by the endorsement as the country at large has been by the prospect of a Christie presidency. When it comes to stirring up partisan rancor, the two men clearly have much in common, but, far from redounding to the credit of both, the Christie/Lepage hug-fest was reminiscent of two spent swimmers clinging to each other in an effort to keep from going under.
Another governor with presidential ambitions is Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, who, while lacking the partisan fire of a Chris Christie, has compiled a similarly dismal record as governor. When Jindal took office in 2003 the state enjoyed a surplus of $900 million. Twelve years later Louisiana is in debt to the tune of over $48 billion thanks in large part to the governor’s insistence on the supply-side theory, cutting taxes on the investor class in the expectation that when the wealthy get wealthier everyone benefits.
No account of the failure of supply-side theory would be complete, however, without mentioning the recent history of the state of Kansas, where, since his election in 2010, Governer Sam Brownback set out to prove his Tea Party bona fides with–you guessed it–a series of draconian tax cuts designed to ignite business activity and grow the state’s economy. About taxes, he made his intentions clear in a 2012 speech: “…you need to get your overall rates down, and you need to get your social manipulation out of it, in my estimation, to create growth. We’ll see how it works. We’ll have a real live experiment.”
The results, however, have more nearly resembled a real live death spiral. Despite clear evidence in the form of debt downgrades and growing red ink, Brownback continued to claim that the anticipated results were just around the corner, actually managing to win reelection in 2014. Since then, the state’s debt has continued to balloon out of control. So much for the scientific method.
In fact, the failure of such conservative schemes to live up to the claims of their devotees has been clear for a long time now. Thirty-five years ago supply-side theory was the guiding principle of President Ronald Reagan’s agenda, an idea his veep, George H. W. Bush, originally dubbed “voodoo economics” and his own OMB director, David Stockman, would eventually disavow. Reagan came into office railing against the national debt, which stood at around $900 billion at the end of the Carter presidentcy, yet by the time he left office it had grown to over $2.3 trillion, establishing the record for largest increase by percentage.
It turns out science is not the only subject the recent crop of experimenters don’t seem to understand. Add history to the list.