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Europe’s Brain-Dead Right

Nobody should be surprised if voters also give Angela Merkel and David Cameron the boot at the next ballot.

By Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal

Readers presumably understand that Europe’s economic crisis is also the crisis of social democracy—of the idea that markets must be made to co-exist with high levels of taxation, regulation, unionization, welfare spending and subsidized health care and education. Eutopia may be nice in theory; it may even work for a while. But eventually social-democratic policies will lead to economic stagnation, policy paralysis and national bankruptcy on the continental scale we are witnessing today.So, naturally, Germany’s Social Democrats romped to a 13-point victory in Sunday’s elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, the country’s largest state.

“All politics is local,” goes the cliché, and it would be tempting to read the German result that way, too. The state had long been a Social Democratic stronghold before tipping into the hands of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats in 2005. Mrs. Merkel remains broadly liked as chancellor and doesn’t face an election until next year. And the German economy is the envy of Europe.

And yet Mrs. Merkel’s party keeps losing state elections: In its old stronghold of Baden-Würrttemberg last year; in her home state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Are Germans doing so well that they’ve decided to become politically flippant about their prosperity? Would Christian Democrats be doing a bit better politically if the economy were doing a bit worse?

The resurgence of the Social Democrats in Germany is of a piece with the strong showing of Labour last month in Britain’s local council elections. It’s of a piece with the pathetic showing this month of Greece’s center-right New Democracy, and of the resurgence there of the hard left. It’s especially of a piece with Francois Hollande’s improbable rise to the French presidency, on the strength of economic ideas whose intellectual sell-by date was sometime in the mid-1970s.

Have the gods gone crazy? No. But maybe there’s a message here for Europe’s joy-fearing conservatives, who seem to have convinced themselves that managing an economy should be like running a 19th-century nunnery—an exercise in the stern suppression of animal spirits.

Take euro-conservative tax policy. In France, Nicolas Sarkozy responded to the euro-zone crisis by increasing some VAT rates to 21.2% from 19.6%, introducing a 3% surcharge on high incomes, and raising the effective capital-gains tax to 32.5% from 31.3%. In Britain, David Cameron raised VAT to 20% from 17.5% and kept the top marginal rate at 50% (now coming down to a still-exorbitant 45%).

Germany? Tax cuts Mrs. Merkel promised when she was re-elected never materialized, though corporate rates have come down. The new conservative Spanish government of Mariano Rajoy is raising the top marginal rate of income tax to 52% from 45%. In Holland, the right-of-center government increased the top VAT rate two percentage points to 21% and doubled the country’s bank tax prior to its sudden collapse last month. Italy’s technocratic administration of Mario Monti has imposed new levies on property, luxury goods and repatriated wealth.

No wonder the natives are stirring. Europe’s right-of-center leaders came to office on the perception that they are better economic managers than their left-of-center counterparts. What they’ve mainly shown is that they are just as incompetent—only a lot more severe.

Raising consumption taxes in an otherwise flat-lining economy is especially galling if it’s joined to the perception (accurate or not) that the government plans to lay off government workers. Why should Europeans be made to sacrifice on an altar of austerity whose benefits have so far failed to materialize, except perhaps as a slightly more palatable debt-to-GDP score? Just who is this thing called “the economy” meant to serve?

The astonishing political result is that it is now the left that has captured the language of growth. Never mind the precise formulas: blowout deficit spending, loose monetary policy, millionaire surcharges, a Tobin tax, euro bonds financed by anybody who can turn water into wine, a “mild” dose of inflation. At least the left is talking growth, not redistribution. That’s a mark of political progress.

Here’s something else the European left seems to be recapturing: the language of sovereignty and democracy.

For years, it was the right that had a corner on that particular market, with its suspicion of all things Brussels. But Mrs. Merkel and Mr. Sarkozy undercut that reputation with their serially ill-fated efforts to broker grand bargains for “saving” the euro zone. Their prescriptions were rubbish—Does Greece look like it’s been rescued? Has Mrs. Merkel’s fiscal pact held up?—but their arrogance was worse. Nobody wants their economic future dictated to them by leaders they didn’t elect, in languages they probably don’t understand. Yet that’s exactly what “Merkozy” sought to impose.

Now it’s gone, and good riddance too. The French will probably soon come to regret Mr. Hollande, but it’s unlikely Mr. Sarkozy will be missed. Nobody should be surprised if voters also give Mrs. Merkel, Mr. Rajoy and Mr. Cameron the boot at the next ballot. At its best, the right should stand for the idea that the purpose of government is to allow people to flourish, mainly by getting out of their way. Today’s European right stands instead for imposing penalties on people in order to atone for the sins of government. That’s a right that deserves to lose, and will, until it learns that voters want freedom, not chastity.

A version of this article appeared May 15, 2012, on page A15 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Europe’s Brain-Dead Right.
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Apparently what’s good for the goose…

… isn’t good for the commie gander, when his name is Putin.
(from the front page of the Wall Street Journal)

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California Declares War on Suburbia

Planners want to herd millions into densely packed urban corridors. It won’t save the planet but will make traffic even worse.

Wendell Cox penned this very interesting piece in the Saturday Wall Street Journal. Basically, this is what happens when planners and radical environmentalists take control. Other 49 states: take heed.

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Peggy Noonan Gets It Right…Again

For the second Saturday in a row, Peggy Noonan has written the only thing we actually needed to read, everything else was just gravy.  You may recall, last week I also posted her weekly column in its entirety.

Here is the latest offering from Noonan, published in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal (highlights are my own):

Oh, for Some Kennedyesque Grace
Obama makes his campaign strategy clear. It’s divide and conquer.

These are things we know after President Obama’s speech Tuesday, in Washington, to a luncheon sponsored by the Associated Press:

The coming election fully occupies his mind. It is his subject matter now, and will be that of his administration. Everything they do between now and November will reflect this preoccupation.

He knows exactly what issues he’s running on and wants everyone else to know. He is not reserving fire, not launching small forays early in the battle. The strategy will be heavy and ceaseless bombardment. The speech announced his campaign’s central theme: The Republican Party is a radical and reactionary force arrayed in defense of one group, the rich and satisfied, while the president and his party struggle to protect the yearning middle class and preserve the American future.

This will be his campaign, minus only the wedge issues—the “war on women,” etc.—that will be newly deployed in the fall.

We know what criticisms and avenues of attack have pierced him. At the top of the speech he lauded, at some length and in a new way, local Catholic churches and social service agencies. That suggests internal polling shows he’s been damaged by the birth-control mandate. The bulk of the speech was devoted to painting Washington Republicans as extreme, outside the mainstream. This suggests his campaign believes the president has been damaged by charges that his leadership has been not center-left, but left. This is oratorical jujitsu: Launch your attack from where you are weak and hit your foe where he is strong. Mr. Obama said he does not back “class warfare,” does not want to “redistribute wealth,” and does not support “class envy.” It’s been a while since an American president felt he had to make such assertions.

The speech was an unusual and unleavened assault on the Republican Party. As such it was gutsy, no doubt sincere and arguably a little mad. The other party in a two-party center-right nation is anathema? There was no good-natured pledging to work together or find common ground, no argument that progress is possible. The GOP “will brook no compromise,” it is “peddling” destructive economic nostrums, it has “a radical vision” and wants to “let businesses pollute more,” “gut education,” and lay off firemen and cops. He said he is not speaking only of groups or factions within the GOP: “This is now the party’s governing platform.” Its leaders lack “humility.” Their claims to concern about the deficit are “laughable.”

The speech was not aimed at healing, ameliorating differences, or joining together. The president was not even trying to appear to be pursuing unity. He must think that is not possible for him now, as a stance.

There was a dissonance at the speech’s core. It was aimed at the center—he seemed to be arguing that to the extent he has not succeeded as president, it is because he was moderate, high-minded and took the long view—but lacked a centrist tone and spirit.

It was obviously not written for applause, which always comes as a relief now in our political leaders. Without applause they can develop a thought, which is why they like applause. In any case, he couldn’t ask a roomful of journalists to embarrass themselves by publicly cheering him. But I suspect the numbers-filled nature of the speech had another purpose: It was meant as a reference document, a fact sheet editors can keep on file to refer to in future coverage. “Jacksonville, Oct. 10—GOP nominee Mitt Romney today charged that the U.S. government has grown under President Obama by 25%. The president has previously responded that in fact the size of government went down during his tenure.”

An odd thing about this White House is that they don’t know who their friends are. Or perhaps they know but feel their friends never give them enough fealty and loyalty. Either way, that was a room full of friends. And yet the president rapped their knuckles for insufficient support. In the Q-and-A he offered criticism that “bears on your reporting”: “I think that there is oftentimes the impulse to suggest that if the two parties are disagreeing, then they’re equally at fault and the truth lies somewhere in the middle.” An “equivalence is presented” that is unfortunate. It “reinforces . . . cynicism.” But the current debate is not “one of those situations where there’s an equivalence.” Journalists are failing to “put the current debate in some historical context.”

That “context,” as he sees it, is that Democrats are doing the right thing, Republicans the wrong thing, Democrats are serious, Republicans are “not serious.”

It was a remarkable moment. I’m surprised the press isn’t complaining and giving little speeches about reporting the facts without fear or favor.

I guess what’s most interesting is that it’s all us-versus-them. Normally at this point, early in an election year, an incumbent president operates within a rounded, nonthreatening blur. He’s sort of in a benign cloud, and then pokes his way out of it with strong, edged statements as the year progresses. Mr. Obama isn’t doing this. He wants it all stark and sharply defined early on. Is this good politics? It is unusual politics. Past presidents in crises have been sunny embracers.

The other day an experienced and accomplished Democratic lawyer spoke, with dismay, of the president’s earlier remarks on the ObamaCare litigation. Mr. Obama had said: “I’m confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress.” He referred to the court as “an unelected group of people” that might “somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law.”

It was vaguely menacing, and it garnered broad criticism. In the press it was characterized as a “brushback”—when a pitcher throws the ball close to a batter’s head to rattle him, to remind him he can be hurt.

The lawyer had studied under Archibald Cox. Cox, who served as John F. Kennedy’s Solicitor General, liked to tell his students of the time in 1962 when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Engel v. Vitale, a landmark ruling against school prayer.

The president feared a firestorm. The American people would not like it. He asked Cox for advice on what to say. Cox immediately prepared a long memo on the facts of the case, the history and the legal merits. Kennedy read it and threw it away. Dry data wouldn’t help.

Kennedy thought. What was the role of a president at such a time?

And this is what he said: We’re all going to have to pray more in our homes.

The decision, he said, was a reminder to every American family “that we can attend our churches with a good deal more fidelity,” and in this way “we can make the true meaning of prayer much more important in the lives of our children.”

He accepted the court’s decision, didn’t rile the populace, and preserved respect for the court while using its controversial ruling to put forward a good idea.

It was beautiful.

One misses that special grace.

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Peggy Noonan: Not-So-Smooth Operator

The one highlight is my own…


Obama increasingly comes across as devious and dishonest.
By Peggy Noonan in today’s Wall Street Journal.

Something’s happening to President Obama’s relationship with those who are inclined not to like his policies. They are now inclined not to like him. His supporters would say, “Nothing new there,” but actually I think there is. I’m referring to the broad, stable, nonradical, non-birther right. Among them the level of dislike for the president has ratcheted up sharply the past few months.

It’s not due to the election, and it’s not because the Republican candidates are so compelling and making such brilliant cases against him. That, actually, isn’t happening.

What is happening is that the president is coming across more and more as a trimmer, as an operator who’s not operating in good faith. This is hardening positions and leading to increased political bitterness. And it’s his fault, too. As an increase in polarization is a bad thing, it’s a big fault.

The shift started on Jan. 20, with the mandate that agencies of the Catholic Church would have to provide birth-control services the church finds morally repugnant. The public reaction? “You’re kidding me. That’s not just bad judgment and a lack of civic tact, it’s not even constitutional!” Faced with the blowback, the president offered a so-called accommodation that even its supporters recognized as devious. Not ill-advised, devious. Then his operatives flooded the airwaves with dishonest—not wrongheaded, dishonest—charges that those who defend the church’s religious liberties are trying to take away your contraceptives.

What a sour taste this all left. How shocking it was, including for those in the church who’d been in touch with the administration and were murmuring about having been misled.

Events of just the past 10 days have contributed to the shift. There was the open-mic conversation with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in which Mr. Obama pleaded for “space” and said he will have “more flexibility” in his negotiations once the election is over and those pesky voters have done their thing. On tape it looked so bush-league, so faux-sophisticated. When he knew he’d been caught, the president tried to laugh it off by comically covering a mic in a following meeting. It was all so . . . creepy.

Next, a boy of 17 is shot and killed under disputed and unclear circumstances. The whole issue is racially charged, emotions are high, and the only memorable words from the president’s response were, “If I had a son he’d look like Trayvon.” At first it seemed OK—not great, but all right—but as the story continued and suddenly there were death threats and tweeted addresses and congressmen in hoodies, it seemed insufficient to the moment. At the end of the day, the public reaction seemed to be: “Hey buddy, we don’t need you to personalize what is already too dramatic, it’s not about you.”

Now this week the Supreme Court arguments on ObamaCare, which have made that law look so hollow, so careless, that it amounts to a characterological indictment of the administration. The constitutional law professor from the University of Chicago didn’t notice the centerpiece of his agenda was not constitutional? How did that happen?

Maybe a stinging decision is coming, maybe not, but in a purely political sense this is how it looks: We were in crisis in 2009—we still are—and instead of doing something strong and pertinent about our economic woes, the president wasted history’s time. He wasted time that was precious—the debt clock is still ticking!—by following an imaginary bunny that disappeared down a rabbit hole.

The high court’s hearings gave off an overall air not of political misfeasance but malfeasance.

All these things have hardened lines of opposition, and left opponents with an aversion that will not go away.

I am not saying that the president has a terrible relationship with the American people. I’m only saying he’s made his relationship with those who oppose him worse.

In terms of the broad electorate, I’m not sure he really has a relationship. A president only gets a year or two to forge real bonds with the American people. In that time a crucial thing he must establish is that what is on his mind is what is on their mind. This is especially true during a crisis.

From the day Mr. Obama was sworn in, what was on the mind of the American people was financial calamity—unemployment, declining home values, foreclosures. These issues came within a context of some overarching questions: Can America survive its spending, its taxing, its regulating, is America over, can we turn it around?

That’s what the American people were thinking about.

But the new president wasn’t thinking about that. All the books written about the creation of economic policy within his administration make clear the president and his aides didn’t know it was so bad, didn’t understand the depth of the crisis, didn’t have a sense of how long it would last. They didn’t have their mind on what the American people had their mind on.

The president had his mind on health care. And, to be fair-minded, health care was part of the economic story. But only a part! And not the most urgent part. Not the most frightening, distressing, immediate part. Not the “Is America over?” part.

And so the relationship the president wanted never really knitted together. Health care was like the birth-control mandate: It came from his hermetically sealed inner circle, which operates with what seems an almost entirely abstract sense of America. They know Chicago, the machine, the ethnic realities. They know Democratic Party politics. They know the books they’ve read, largely written by people like them—bright, credentialed, intellectually cloistered. But there always seems a lack of lived experience among them, which is why they were so surprised by the town hall uprisings of August 2009 and the 2010 midterm elections.

If you jumped into a time machine to the day after the election, in November, 2012, and saw a headline saying “Obama Loses,” do you imagine that would be followed by widespread sadness, pain and a rending of garments? You do not. Even his own supporters will not be that sad. It’s hard to imagine people running around in 2014 saying, “If only Obama were president!” Including Mr. Obama, who is said by all who know him to be deeply competitive, but who doesn’t seem to like his job that much. As a former president he’d be quiet, detached, aloof. He’d make speeches and write a memoir laced with a certain high-toned bitterness. It was the Republicans’ fault. They didn’t want to work with him.

He will likely not see even then that an American president has to make the other side work with him. You think Tip O’Neill liked Ronald Reagan? You think he wanted to give him the gift of compromise? He was a mean, tough partisan who went to work every day to defeat Ronald Reagan. But forced by facts and numbers to deal, he dealt. So did Reagan.

An American president has to make cooperation happen.

But we’ve strayed from the point. Mr. Obama has a largely nonexistent relationship with many, and a worsening relationship with some.

Really, he cannot win the coming election. But the Republicans, still, can lose it. At this point in the column we usually sigh.

A version of this article appeared Mar. 31, 2012, on page A13 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Not-So-Smooth Operator.

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Ryan’s Budget Protects Defense

Today’s Wall Street Journal features a very important editorial, it’s in its entirety below.

Within a plan to reduce outlays by $6.2 trillion over the next decade, Paul Ryan has found a way to replace $214 billion of the $487 billion in military spending cuts in Obama’s budget.

By ARTHUR C. BROOKS, EDWIN J. FEULNER AND WILLIAM KRISTOL

In an election year, it’s all too easy for politicians to defer hard choices until after the polls have closed in November. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) has taken the more difficult road with his “Path to Prosperity” budget.

Mr. Ryan’s plan has received much attention for tackling America’s spiraling expenditures on entitlements and domestic discretionary spending. Less reported is the budget’s partial restoration of national defense as the No. 1 priority of the federal government.

Even within the framework of a plan to reduce outlays by $6.2 trillion over the next decade, Mr. Ryan has found a way to replace $214 billion of the $487 billion in military spending reductions that are in Barack Obama’s budget. And he has done so while avoiding the tax increases proposed by the president.

Conservatives recognize that they have to deal with fiscal reality and get the federal government’s balance sheet in order. That is why Mr. Ryan’s plan is so bold. It does not cut indiscriminately, focusing instead on the true drivers of our spending crisis and recognizing that tax increases would worsen our economic situation.

The Ryan plan also helps to reverse what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has called the “catastrophic” process of sequestration—the year-after-year, automatic cuts agreed to in last summer’s debt-limit deal between the president and the House leadership. These cuts will eviscerate the United States military if Congress does not quickly pass a law to undo them this year. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has made plain the consequences of sequestration: “We would no longer be a global power.”

The contrast between the House Republican budget and that of our current commander-in-chief is striking. President Obama has been arguing that raising taxes is the only solution to sequestration that he will accept. In other words, he asks the nation to decide between higher taxes and a weaker defense. Mr. Ryan rejects either solution.

Instead, Mr. Ryan takes some important first steps toward facing up to the true drivers of the federal government’s money woes: spending through “entitlement” programs. These now consume roughly 60% of the federal budget, up from 20% in 1970. In contrast, national defense, which comprised nearly 40% of the budget in the 1970s, costs less than 20% today, even with current war spending. Absent reform, entitlements will spiral upward and crowd out all other federal spending—not just on the military.

It’s incorrect to regard entitlements as mandatory programs. They reflect political choices about what kind of country we want and how we will govern ourselves. If we fail to reform entitlements, we’ll go on pretending we can afford a retirement with benefits we never earned, paid for by our children and grandchildren. We’ll be choosing an ever-more socialized medical system. We will in effect choose to become a European-style—and unsustainable—welfare state.

We will also be choosing to lay aside the burdens and inconveniences of world leadership. Mr. Obama insists that he doesn’t believe America is in decline. But his redistributionist policies at home and his preference for “leading from behind” abroad can only be regarded as making exactly that choice.

The Ryan budget is not perfect for some conservatives. Many would like to see American military spending restored more rapidly and an even more aggressive approach to tackling the entitlement problem. But Mr. Ryan’s budget is a choice about our future, and this is a time to choose—not hide behind the sequestration process.

If we want a strong America in a dangerous world, and a freer and growing economy for our citizens, it’s time to choose the direction that Mr. Ryan is charting.

Mr. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute. Mr. Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation. Mr. Kristol is a director of the Foreign Policy Initiative. Their three organizations compose the Defending Defense coalition.

A version of this article appeared Mar. 28, 2012, on page A13 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Ryan’s Budget Protects Defense.

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WSJ: Ryan’s Hat Is in the Ring

If you read only one thing today, this should be it. Highlights are my own. Original article found here:

Ryan’s Hat Is in the Ring
With the House budget, the GOP’s institutions are joined to the party’s presidential candidates.
By DANIEL HENNINGER

Paul Ryan threw his hat into the presidential political ring this week. It’s a big hat—the House Republican budget resolution. A House budget isn’t your father’s idea of a presidential candidacy. Instead, it’s an “ideas candidacy,” and it just might put a Republican back in the White House.

Mr. Ryan chose last year not to undergo the U.S.’s presidential trial by ordeal. Instead, he is using the institutional authority of his office, chairman of the House Budget Committee, to shape the debate between the incumbent president, a New Deal Democrat, and the Republican reform movement that Mr. Ryan and his allies in Congress represent. (That, by the way, includes the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, who had to sign off on this document.)

Paul Ryan’s admirers had their reasons for wanting him on the field, and mine comes down to one—the single, stark point Mr. Ryan has made since his side lost the health-care battle with Barack Obama, and which he made this week: “It is rare in American politics to arrive at a moment in which the debate revolves around the fundamental nature of American democracy and the social contract. But that is where we are.”

Republican discontent the past nine months has been about the inability of any presidential candidate to match the moment as Mr. Ryan defines it. But it may be that Republicans have been loading up more hope than any one candidate can bear these days.

A modern presidential candidate is Gulliver, pecked at daily, even hourly, for months by thousands of squawking Internet crows. If Ronald Reagan himself were running like this for a year, we’d start picking at him, too.

Worse, they are connected to nothing other than themselves. Last summer, a member of the GOP leadership visited our offices, and we asked how much contact they had with the six or so candidates competing then in the not-so-great debates. The answer: zero. The party and its presidential candidates have become like celestial bodies, rotating in distant corners of the same galaxy.

With the Ryan budget, this party’s two poles are joined. Especially on taxes.

Taxation is the subject that most clearly defines the competing visions of the two parties. Medicare is about a big fix. Tax policy is about the nature of the nation. It comes down to this: What are taxes for?

With the House budget, the GOP’s institutions are joined to the party’s presidential candidates.

In a blog post under that headline last April, Paul Krugman gave the conventional answer: “So taxes are, first and foremost, about paying for what government buys (duh).”  Krugman is an idiot of the Left — Steve

Larry Summers, when he left the White House, spoke of the impending nightmare of an “inadequately resourced” government. He said, “While recovery is our first priority, it is essential that we establish long-run parity between revenues and expenditures.”

This has been the standard model of taxation’s purpose since the king was collecting taxes in Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest. Ronald Reagan overturned the king’s model in the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, with support from pre-Obama Democrats. Reagan, radically, gave the economy’s long-term growth prior claim over government’s revenue needs. Refuting Reagan forever is the raison d’etre of the modern Democratic party and its satellites. Taxes are about government, nothing else. Duh.

For the alternative to this galley-slave view of taxes, with the citizenry rowing endlessly to the horizon for the government, open footnote 76 in the Ryan budget. It is House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp’s tight description of what we should want from our tax system.

Here’s my summary of his summary: Our taxation system ought to serve an America that must live and survive in the world as it is now, and will be into the distant future. That is a tax system that allows economic growth greater than the below-2.5% of the past three years, the new Obama normal. It is a tax system that maximizes the release of capital into the economy for productive purposes. That tax system will allow users of capital to create jobs for people who don’t want to work for the government. That tax system will let U.S. firms compete in the new world dominated by young, emerging economies. It will be a fair tax system if its claims are not so heavy that it sinks into the corruptions of loopholes, credits and preferences bartered in Washington.

The tax system we have now is a 20th-century tax system, whose purpose was to pay for what government bought. And bought and bought. Republicans, anti-status quo insurgents and upwardly mobile independent voters should recognize that with the Ryan-Camp tax plan (two low personal rates, a lower corporate rate) now joined to the high-growth consensus of these presidential challengers, the U.S. has one chance this year and next, when the new code would become law, to rejoin the real world, not some 60-year-old dream world.

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Filed under congressman paul ryan, daniel henninger, dave camp, entitlement reform, path to prosperity, tax reform, wall street journal