Just how dumb are we Americans, anyhow?

If we're even half as dumb as our politicians have taken us for in this year's tax debate, the answer is: pretty darned dumb indeed.We're apparently so dumb that we are willing to believe that taxes were cut too deeply in the 1980s, whereas the arithmetical reality is that the federal load was every bit as high at the end of the decade as at the start - and the combined federal, state and local burden has soared this year to the highest level in history.

We're apparently so dumb that we are willing to believe that federal spending was cruelly cut in the 1980s, whereas the arithmetical reality is that it snowballed even beyond the ability of the extra hundreds upon hundreds of billions of tax revenues to pay for it.

We're apparently so dumb that we believe only "the rich" benefited from the limited efforts to restrain government in the 1980s, whereas the arithmetical reality is that the real income of the average American family increased by thousands of dollars, amid the longest peacetime economic expansion ever - and an explosion of paying jobs unmatched anywhere else on the planet.

We're apparently so dumb that we are willing to throw out the baby with the bath water, in our newborn obsession with the federal deficit - which, in arithmetical reality, takes a dramatically smaller portion of our gross national product than it did in the mid-1980s.

And we're apparently so dumb that, in a thrilling historical era when even the communist nations of East Europe have discovered that class-war rhetoric is the enemy of human progress, we are starting to buy the same pernicious nonsense they are finally having the sense to reject.

The interest of the politicians in fostering these fantasies is clear enough: they just want to get re-elected. And responsible statesmanship, as envisioned when the Constitution was drawn, has absolutely nothing to do with it.

The method is simple. Play to the basest instincts of your constituents. Encourage in them the delusion that there is a vast cornucopia of wealth in Washington, to which they are entitled to their "fair share." Never let them understand that there is actually nothing in Washington except a bankrupt treasury and the ability to tax and borrow.

Never, under any circumstances, think creatively about how to get a genuine handle on federal spending. (You might get somebody mad.) Never amass facts, always count votes. It may have been James Madison's view that elected representatives should act as teachers to "refine and enlarge the public views," but what did Madison know of Gallup polls, media consultants and lifetime political tenure?

Cynics have suggested for more than a century that the American experiment was doomed to failure as soon as the have-nots discovered they had the power to grab other people's money. There is nothing new about the loony suggestions that all we need to do is "soak the rich" and cut defense (popular changes that would, in reality, still leave the deficit close to $300 billion).

Congress passed the income-tax amendment in 1909, and when it was being debated in state legislatures, assurances were given that it would never exceed 4-5 percent and would affect only a relatively few rich people at that. Every major tax increase since then has been introduced shrouded in the same rhetoric. Does anyone seriously believe that the breaking of faith with "the rich" on the 1986 deal - which promised permanently lower rates for all in return for wholesale elimination of deductions - is not ultimately going to punish the pocketbooks of the great mass of taxpayers, too? As Congress always eventually discovers, that's where the money is.

If we are as dumb as the politicians in both parties now appear to believe, we will accept the nonsense that the only true problem is that some other guy isn't paying his fair share - and that, if he did, Congress could keep on lavishly funding every program we personally hold near and dear.

Are we really that dumb? "I tremble for my country," said Thomas Jefferson, "when I reflect that God is just." How Jefferson would be shuddering today!