The Confederacy of Takers

WASHINGTON — President Obama’s opponents have unwittingly come up with a brilliant plan to avoid the “fiscal cliff.” They want to secede from the union.

If Obama were serious about being a good steward of the nation’s finances, he’d let them.

The White House, in one of those astro-turf efforts that make people feel warm about small-d democracy, launched a “We the People” program on its website last year, allowing Americans to petition their government for a redress of grievances. Any petition that receives 25,000 or more signatures within 30 days is promised a response (though not necessarily a favorable one) from the Obama administration.

And so a large number of patriotic Americans, mostly from states won by Mitt Romney last week, have petitioned the White House to let them secede. They should be careful about what they wish for. It would be excellent financial news for those of us left behind if Obama were to grant a number of the rebel states their wish “to withdraw from the United States and create (their) own NEW government” (the petitions emphasize “new” by capitalizing it).

Red states receive, on average, far more from the federal government in expenditures than they pay in taxes. The balance is the opposite in blue states. The secession petitions, therefore, give the opportunity to create what would be, in a fiscal sense, a far more perfect union.

Among those states with large numbers of petitioners asking out: Louisiana (more than 28,000 signatures at midday Tuesday), which gets about $1.45 in federal largess for every $1 it pays in taxes; Alabama (more than 20,000 signatures), which takes $1.71 for every $1 it puts in; South Carolina (26,000), which takes $1.38 for its dollar; and Missouri (22,000), which takes $1.29 for its dollar.

Since the effort gained attention this week, copycats in all but a few states have joined the petition drive. To be fair, White House officials could refuse the secession petitions of states Obama won, such as New York (which gets only 79 cents on its tax dollar), Michigan (85 cents) and Colorado (79 cents).

What would be left is a Confederacy of Takers, including relatively poor states such as Alaska, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi. One of the few would-be Confederacy members that pays more than it receives is Texas, which because of oil money is close to break-even at 94 cents of benefits for its tax dollar. (The statistics, from an analysis of tax and revenue data by the nonpartisan Tax Foundation, were published in 2006, but the broad pattern doesn’t vary much over time.)

Depending on how aggressive a fiscal hawk he wishes to be, Obama could also try to offload onto the Confederacy of the Takers North and South Dakota and Montana ($1.73, $1.49 and $1.58 in benefits, respectively), but this would probably only work if Canada agreed to allow overflight rights for American aircraft to reach the West Coast states of Washington, Oregon and California (88 cents, 97 cents and 79 cents on their tax dollars, respectively).

Possibly, the new United States would need to negotiate certain protectorates in the Confederacy — Austin, New Orleans, South Florida and the like — the way the British did in Hong Kong. Then there is the awkward matter of what the breakaway nation would do to its poor.

But once the handout states left the union (and took with them a proportionate share of the federal debt), the rest of the country could enjoy lower taxes and the high level of government service typical of the Northeast, the Great Lakes and the West Coast.

There would also be nonfinancial benefits. Tampa’s Central Command, now caught up in the David Petraeus sex scandal, would be the new nation’s problem. And the exit of a number of Southern representatives from Congress would give Democrats a solid governing majority.

Of course, secession isn’t as easy or as painless as an electronic petition, and Obama couldn’t offer a redress of these petitioners’ grievances even if he wanted to. Nor should he want to: The Union of the Makers would be fiscally healthy but spiritually poor without the Confederacy of the Takers.

Yet would-be rebels from the red states should keep in mind during the coming budget battle that those who are most ardent about cutting government spending tend to come from parts of the country that most rely on it.

Dana Milbank’s email address is danamilbank@washpost.com.

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