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Interview with John Boehner

April 13, 2013

I met Mr. Boehner in a D.C. pub the other day and found myself alone with him in a back room. He was a little tipsy (actually he had had quite a few too many) and was in a talking mood. I identified myself as a journalist and told him everything he said would be off the record. He believed me and will, of course, disavow everything that follows.

What he said was so interesting that I feel it is worth reproducing here even though it is mildly unethical to do so. I recorded the conversation and I’ve removed um’s and uh’s and pauses from the transcript. For the record: I am not, in fact, a journalist, so I have little to lose.

(One thing I can say for JB— he can hold his liquor. It seemed like the more he drank, the more articulate he became. — TK)

TK: So, how do we fix the economy?

JB: The economy depends on confidence. We need to restore people’s confidence that Washington is being run by people who know what they are doing.

TK: You mean Republicans, I presume.

JB: Of course. Republicans know who makes the economy run, who creates the jobs, who innovates, and who invests. As long as we keep threatening to raise taxes on the job creators, we’ll never get back to 4% unemployment and 4% economic growth.

TK: So you’re saying trickle-down economics is the way to go.

JB: Well, that’s become a pejorative term used by the left to demonize the idea that successful people make the economy run. But there’s nothing wrong with success. Success means jobs and jobs means a strong economy and a strong economy means a strong nation.

TK: So it’s okay with you that Mitt Romney’s tax rate is only 15%?

JB: Of course. Mitt Romney was successful. He did it by working hard and by working smart. He took failing companies and made them stronger, made them able to survive. Not everyone can do that. He deserves his wealth and there’s no need to tax him at 30% as Warren Buffet has proposed. Just the opposite: we should reward his success.

TK: But some ordinary people who aren’t millionaires pay 30% or more in taxes.

JB: That’s true. They haven’t had Mitt Romney’s success. They aren’t as smart as Mitt Romney or they didn’t work as hard and, quite frankly, they haven’t contributed as much to our overall economy. Some would say (I’m not one of them) that people who make their money from investments shouldn’t be taxed at all, that the capital gains tax rate should be zero because we want to encourage investment.

TK: Couldn’t you say that about work also? We shouldn’t tax middle class incomes because we want to encourage people to work?

JB: Well, we don’t have to encourage people to work. You have to work or you’ll have nothing but what you can get out of the government. So people will work as long as there are jobs for them. However, I think a 15% capital gains rate is low enough to encourage the job creators to invest their money. It doesn’t really need to be zero.

TK: Some would say that people in the middle class spend all the money they make, so taxing them is relatively expensive because you are taking money out of the economy while taxing someone like Mitt Romney at 30% would reduce the deficit and Mitt Romney would still have plenty of disposable income to spend.

JB: It is tempting to a lot of people to try to balance the budget on the backs of successful people, but this is just the wrong philosophy. We have to reward success as much as possible and the successful people should not feel like they have to apologize for their success. You wouldn’t ask a quarterback to apologize for winning the Super Bowl, would you?

TK: Isn’t it a problem that income disparities in this country are growing, that the rich are getting richer and everyone else is flatlining?

JB: No, not at all. In fact, even today, the wealth held by the innovators and the risk-takers and the upper classes in general doesn’t reflect the value of these people to the economy. The middle class would be fine if Washington could bring itself to be more pro-business.

TK: So the rich aren’t rich enough?

JB: Not really, no. In a true meritocracy, which I think is the best kind of economy for everyone regardless of what your social class is, those few people whose success is responsible for the success of the country would be even more handsomely rewarded than they are now.

TK: So it would be okay with you if the current gap between the 99% and the 1% widened even more?

JB: Yes. And the 99% would be better off for it because the 1% that has become a kind of 21st-century bogeyman happens to drive much of the economy. By the way, this doesn’t mean that the 1% shouldn’t give money to charity and so forth. If Warren Buffet wants to give away billions of dollars, that’s great, I applaud him. But if we make this kind of redistribution part of the system, a matter of forced government policy rather than personal choice, then the system simply doesn’t run as well.

TK: Okay, so income disparity is not a problem. What about the national debt? How are we going to balance the budget if the rich get richer and we don’t raise their taxes?

JB: The problem with the budget is NOT that some people are successful! The problem is that over the last hundred years or so, the government has expanded beyond its core mission of defense and law enforcement and grown to encompass everyone’s day-to-day life.

TK: You’re talking about the social programs.

JB: Yes. We need to gradually reduce and eventually eliminate most of these programs.

TK: Won’t that hurt a lot of people?

JB: No. If it’s done gradually, it will ultimately help people because government will be smaller and the economy will be stronger.

TK: But there’s really no consensus that programs like Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security should be eliminated.

JB: I know. But we are in fact better off without these programs.

TK: Without a popular mandate, how can you make this happen?

JB: Slowly. We’re in a good place now. The national debt is above 100% of GDP and no one likes tax increases. So we simply don’t have enough money to fully fund the social programs. Eventually we will be forced to cut them.

TK: Now wait a minute. Are you saying it’s a good thing that the debt is above 100% of GDP?

JB: Yes, of course. This is the only way we can get the country back to a time when government does what it was meant to do — protect us so that we can live in freedom. The idea of government handouts for everything is really a disaster. Once everyone agrees that we can no longer afford it, we’ll be able to go back.

TK: I’ve heard of this. Isn’t it called ‘starve the beast’?

JB: Yes, exactly. Ever since Reagan, Republicans have allowed the national debt to increase while winning the argument on taxes. So now it’s relatively easy to keep taxes low and we can sit back and wait until people realize that we simply can’t afford the social programs and that we are actually better off without them.

TK: So would you say you’re winning the argument overall?

JB: Absolutely. Even though we control just one house of Congress, we were able to make the Bush tax cuts permanent for almost all Americans. Even for the top 2%, taxes only went back to where they were when Bush took office. The budget deficit has been cut in half since Bush left, but it’s still plenty huge. As long as we hold the line on taxes, the national debt will soon reach 150% of GDP and we’ll have a good chance of moving the country back to a time when government was much, much smaller than it is today.

TK: And we’ll all be better off?

JB: In general, yes. But I object to liberals’ continual use of that word, “all.” Of course, nothing can or should be guaranteed to everyone. We don’t “all” just get things. If you work hard and if you are bright or creative and if you know how to work with people, you’ll be better off. With a smaller government, everyone will have a chance to live the dream, to make it big, to have the nice house, or even the yacht. It’s when you start guaranteeing things to absolutely everyone that you mess up the incentives, damage the economy, and keep us from reaching our potential as a country.

TK: Okay, one last question. What about food stamps?

JB: Well, we won’t need them as much with an economy that rewards success. For the few people who will still need food stamps, we can easily afford to keep the program in place. It’s really Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security that are so costly. Eventually, those programs will be either much reduced or gone entirely (I may not live to see that!) and most of us, not all of us, just most of us, will be far better off.

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