J. Peder Zane

Zane: A tale of two speeches shows our political divide

For a red state governor, Pat McCrory sure can talk a blue streak. Last week’s State of the State address clocked in at 80 minutes, making President Obama’s hour-long State of the Union seem downright pithy.

Ironically, the governor’s bloated speech was a clarion call for limited government, while President Obama’s leaner address continued his push for an expanding state. Together, they provide a short course in the principles and priorities that guide our two major parties.

McCrory’s speech cast government as an essential facilitator in North Carolina, not the indispensable change agent. Government can do the most good for the greatest number by helping unleash the creative spirits of our state’s residents, businesses and institutions, not by attempting to solve problems through new bureaucracies and regulations.

McCrory’s Innovation-to-Jobs plan and N.C. Providing Access to Capital for Entrepreneurs and Small Business Act, for example, would encourage growth by helping innovative businesses and educational institutions secure the capital they need to flourish. These efforts seem worthwhile, but they are not game-changers; this is not due to flaws in their design or scope but economic realities. As we were reminded in 2008, our local, state and national economies are driven far more by market forces than government policies. Conservatives believe that government can do more to hinder growth, especially through high taxes and regulation, than help it.

Obama’s speech cast government as the central player in national life. It is not an engine of growth but of fairness that corrects the inevitable inequalities of the market. Obama’s “middle-class” economics – a series of tax breaks, subsidies and regulations that will make even more people dependent on government – aims to ease the burden of stagnant wages and student debt. Instead of growing the pie, he seeks new ways to divvy up the slices.

Although Obama’s State of the Union has been described as bold and visionary, it is a modest document that defends regulations he has already passed, especially the Affordable Care Act, while proposing government control of the Internet through “net neutrality.” Quick question: Does anyone believe that today’s Internet is not free or that the dizzying improvements in service will continue with greater government control?

Rather than expanding the reach of government, McCrory’s speechfocused on delivering existing services more effectively and efficiently. The billion-dollar bond issues he proposed, one to upgrade our transportation system and the other to address dilapidated government buildings, recognize that we must fix what is broken before adding more moving parts to the machinery of state. Same goes for his plans to boost teacher pay and reduce student testing. While McCrory has hinted at expanding Medicaid, he should get the budget-eating system under control before enlarging it at the expense of other worthy programs.

Broadly speaking, McCrory thinks government programs should follow funding. It is not enough to ask: What might we do? We must always ask: What can we afford? How can we make the greatest difference within those limits?

Obama believes that funding should follow programs. Although the national debt has grown by almost $8 trillion during his presidency, he believes we have engaged in “mindless austerity.” His proposed 2016 budget, which totals $4 trillion in spending, represents a 33 percent increase in federal outlays since 2008.

While proposing tax increases to finance his new initiatives, Obama said nothing in his State of the Union about reforming the main drivers of our debt: Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security. Predicting growing deficits in the years ahead, his budget sharply reduces defense and discretionary spending to fund entitlements.

During the 1980s, liberals railed against President Reagan’s efforts to “starve the beast” of government. Reagan predicted his own failure when he observed, “The nearest thing to eternal life we will ever see on this earth is a government program.”

Obama knows this. He is feeding the beast, confident that government obligations cannot be undone. If you believe that America’s biggest problem is not economic growth but inequality, that our country no longer provides an elevator but the shaft to most Americans, then his approach might make sense.

Except, of course, that bills eventually come due – as we see in high tax states like Illinois, which is on the verge of bankruptcy. Perhaps the right is too focused on these fiscal pressures, but the left seems oblivious to them.

North Carolina could raise taxes and support new programs precisely because of its long tradition of fiscal discipline. But the money we raise and spend today is money we can’t raise and spend tomorrow. I would rather keep some bullets in the chamber.

The irony of this tale of two speeches is that, as fiscal pressures mount, the small government approach may be big government’s last best hope.

Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at jpederzane@jpederzane.com.