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In Conversation: Barney Frank

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JZ: What are government’s prospects in the next decade? You’ve made your prediction about gay rights ten years from now, but what do you see as the role of government ten years from now?

BF: I think it depends. If we can substantially reduce America’s worldwide military expenditures, I think the prospects are good. That will free up resources to allow us to start bringing down the level of debt or reducing the rate at which debt is accumulating, and free up funds.

I think people, particularly young people, want things done about climate change, I think they want things done about excessive inequality. I think there’s a very positive role for government, and I think the public wants it. I think we’ve seen that test with the tea party. The people who want to dismantle government came to power in the House. Now it’s blowing up in their face.

JZ: Do you think it’s just a question of reducing the military budget? It seems like Americans have an irrational relationship with government.

BF: Yeah, they want more from the government but they don’t want to pay for it. Now the tea party people thought the way to resolve that was to reduce what the government does. That turns out not to be popular. Many of us on the Democratic side think that the way to do it is to increase the revenues, mostly from wealthy people. Let me put it this way, I think the prospects of increased taxation on the wealthiest people and a reduction in the military are very likely. And you say it’s more than the military, but the military is critical to your formulation, people want us to spend this much [holds one hand at eye-level] and tax that much [holds the other hand at chest-level], how do you eliminate the gap?

JZ: By reducing the military.

BF: Unnecessary military expenditures are always part of the gap.

JZ: In terms of that gap, though—

BF: And by the way, just one other thing: the polls. Do you want to cut Medicare? Eighty percent no. Do you want to cut Social Security? Seventy-six percent no. Do you want to cut military commitments overseas? Sixty-five percent yes.

JZ: But at the same time, there’s that famous sign, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare.” There’s this contradiction in what people want from government.

BF: Yes there is. But that’s because people don’t like government. You didn’t ask me what the attitudes would be toward government but what government would do. I think there will be an expansion of government’s activity. People may not call it government.

JZ: Okay, I understand that about government, but what about people’s attitudes about government?

BF: Well, I think it will get better. I think people are frustrated now because they think they’re paying but they’re not getting the services. I think if we can improve what government does, then people will feel better.

JZ: Do you view this hatred of government as cyclical? Have you seen it go in cycles?

BF: No, it’s worse than it’s been in a long time. But I think it’s the fact that the economy was bad and people saw the unfairness of it. And in particular in March of ’09, when it came out that AIG had paid out bonuses with federal subsidies. And the TARP, which was this highly successful but wildly unpopular policy. The other thing is the media. The media’s gotten increasingly negative on both sides, including by the way people who are theoretically on the left who are just interested in denigrating government.

JZ: What about the media component, though? How does the general polarization get fixed?

BF: If the Republicans win everything in November, then we’re in for a very bleak period because they’ll take it as ratification of this anti-government attitude. I think it’s going the other way. I have a bumper sticker for us: we’re not perfect, but they’re nuts. And I think the public buys that.

JZ: But we’ve seen these wild swings, in ’06 and in ’08, and then in ’10, and now maybe in ’12. Is there anything that gives you any confidence that, were it to swing back the Democrats in ’12, that it wouldn’t swing back to the Republicans in ’14? It seems like we’re in this crazy cycle where—

BF: Yes, that we are able to produce results. I think if we get power and show good things happening. What happened was we got back in power and then we inherited the wind. But I think if the Democrats come back in ’12, I think, for instance, as the health-care bill goes forward, it will be less and less plausible that it was doing any damage to anybody, and more and more people will be seeing the benefits of it. Similarly with financial reform.


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