Sam Brownback’s Not One for Religious Freedom

AP Photo/John Hanna, File

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback speaks during a news conference at the Statehouse in Topeka. 

Courtesy of his friends in the Trump administration, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback now has a ticket out of his state, where his blind faith in trickle-down economics (TDE) plunged Kansas into economic chaos and dragged down his own approval rating to a level so low that he’s duking it out with New Jersey’s Chris Christie as America’s least popular governor.

But the position to which Trump has nominated Brownback— Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom—is one for which Brownback’s performance as governor leaves him almost uniquely unqualified.

Immediately following his election as governor in the 2010 Tea Party landslide, Brownback announced he’d call on his fellow Republicans in the legislature (who held a decisive majority) to eliminate the state’s top income tax bracket, exempt a large number of businesses from any income tax at all, and incrementally zero out the individual and corporate income tax altogether. When the legislature enacted this program, Brownback proclaimed, “Today’s legislation will create tens of thousands of new jobs and help make Kansas the best place in America to start and grow a small business.”

It didn’t quite work out that way. As my colleague Justin Miller has reported in the Prospect’s summer issue, Kansas has seen only a 3.5 percent increase in jobs since 2013, while the rate for the nation as a whole is 7.6 percent. The decrease in revenue that resulted from Brownback’s tax cuts led to such sharp cuts in health care and education that hospitals were forced to close and some school districts had to end their school year early. Eventually, the starvation of public schools led to a revolt among Republicans. In the 2016 election, a number of more moderate GOP candidates defeated Brownback supporters in Republican legislative primaries, and Democrats captured Republican-held legislative seats last November. Earlier this month, the anti-Brownback Republicans joined Democrats in repealing the governor’s tax cuts. Brownback’s trickle-down experiment had decisively failed.

What’s all this got to do with religious freedom? Just this: The belief that cutting taxes on the rich leads to more job creation and general prosperity is just that—a belief, a leap of faith that has to hop over all empirical evidence to the contrary. The good old days of mid-20th-century America, for which many Republicans opine, were a time of unprecedentedly progressive taxation, with the rates on the highest brackets topping 90 percent—and also with record levels of job creation and working-class advances into middle-class living standards. What Brownback’s cuts demonstrated—that the relationship between trickle-down economics and general prosperity was actually inverse—was nothing new; it had been proven time and again well before Brownback took office. Nonetheless, so profound was Brownback’s faith in the magic of trickle down that he vetoed the bills earlier this month overturning his tax cuts, though, mercifully, Republicans joined Democrats in overriding his vetoes by the required two-thirds margin.

To be sure, only some of trickle down’s advocates are true believers. What trickle down really does, at least until economic conditions grow so grim that a deep recession ensues, is simply funnel more money to the rich. The wealthy and their political lapdogs, however, can’t very well argue for high-bracket tax cuts on the grounds that it will further enrich them, often at the expense of all the poorer suckers out there. Hence the fiction of trickle down: It supplies an argument that, while empirically ridiculous, at least sounds better than “Let’s give the rich more money to play with!”

In theory, Brownback could be one of those knowing cynics who embrace trickle-down economics though he knows it’s a sham. But I doubt that. I take him at his word that he’s a man of faith, a faith so strong he was willing to slash health care, schooling, and public safety in the name of TDE. Kansas was Isaac to his Abraham, and he had already plunged the knife by the time the countervailing deity of the legislature made him stay his hand.

That’s why the religious freedom gig is completely wrong for Brownback. He is, of course, entitled to his faith, as all humans are. What he’s not entitled to is to impose his faith on others, as he did to his fellow Kansans at great cost to them. Religious freedom, after all, is a two-fer: It not only means allowing each individual to believe and worship as she pleases, but also that the state shall not impose faith-based beliefs on its citizens. That’s exactly what Sam Brownback did. If he’s a true advocate of religious freedom, rather than accept his ambassadorship, he should join some monastic TDE faith-based cult, like the Heritage Foundation, The Wall Street Journal editorial page, or the Republican congressional delegation.

Tax Cuts for the rich. Deregulation for the powerful. Wage suppression for everyone else. These are the tenets of trickle-down economics, the conservatives’ age-old strategy for advantaging the interests of the rich and powerful over those of the middle class and poor. The articles in Trickle-Downers are devoted, first, to exposing and refuting these lies, but equally, to reminding Americans that these claims aren’t made because they are true. Rather, they are made because they are the most effective way elites have found to bully, confuse and intimidate middle- and working-class voters. Trickle-down claims are not real economics. They are negotiating strategies. Here at the Prospect, we hope to help you win that negotiation.

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