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Untied We Stand (Part One)

April 14, 2011

More than six months into Fiscal Year 2011, Congress decided to fund the government for that year (they start September 1 of the preceding year).  It took the possibility of a government shutdown to get both sides to agree to $40 billion in “cuts” in a budget that essentially amounts another stop-gap measure in terms of its failure to address any of the real issues of the solvency of the government budget.  As I pointed out last post, it is the entitlement spending that encompasses just under half of the federal budget each year.  But what’s making us broke is our incongruent failure to commit the necessary funds to pay for the luxury of treating our elders with lavish levels of respect and dignity.

Of course, one could argue that we need to take cognizance of the indisputable fact that that the costs associated with entitlement programs will continue to grow as long as life spans continue to expand and medical technology continues to produce increasingly expensive cures to increasingly difficult-to-cure process of bodily decay.  But suggesting that people die earlier (my own preference as a young, invincible Turk, relatively speaking) is probably more politically infeasible than reforming Social Security, the proverbial “third rail of politics.”

The ballooning trend of the deficit makes it clear that even though our economy continues to grow, either spending has gone out of control or the Treasury’s take is not keeping pace.  Depending on whether you ask a partisan, you’ll get one answer or the other.  Of course, the truth is that it’s both.  The TARP bailouts, the stimulus spending frenzy, and the bowing to special interests during the course of financial and health care reform raised serious concerns that the Obama administration was just as subject to regulatory capture by moneyed interests as anyone.  The fact that the Bush Tax Cuts™ have not yet expired after two years of a Democrat-dominated government and a public discussion of how to cut the deficit is the travesty that proves it. To liberals, as well as in my own heart of hearts, Obama’s failure to fulfill his overwrought and overbuilt destiny of “philosopher king” is what has made his administration so disappointing; in pursuing an ambitious agenda, Obama has never failed to compromise his ideological stances for the pragmatic victory.  Through the lens of history, first term Obama will appear more conservative than Dwight D. Eisenhower.

But now that the more dramatic Ryan budget is on the table for the years to come, Obama got up and made a speech that reminded us that he was, in fact, a Democrat.  Obama has finally used the bully pulpit that was his one platform to combat the impulses and interests, which have more than sufficient motivation and opportunity to ensure that their welfare is represented by impending legislation.  Obama’s speech finally made the intellectually consistent argument regarding spending programs: yes, they are expensive, but they’re something, as an advanced society, America should choose to pay for.  Specifically, Obama pointed out that the Bush tax cuts represented a transfer to the wealthy at the expense of the infrastructure of society that the wealthy use to their benefit.  Essentially, Obama finally took the liberal position that the American elite should pay for the benefits our social arrangements enable them to reap.

Worst of all, this [Ryan Budget] is a vision that says even though America can’t afford to invest in education or clean energy; even though we can’t afford to care for seniors and poor children, we can somehow afford more than $1 trillion in new tax breaks for the wealthy. Think about it. In the last decade, the average income of the bottom 90 percent of all working Americans actually declined. The top 1 percent saw their income rise by an average of more than a quarter of a million dollars each. And that’s who needs to pay less taxes? They want to give people like me a two hundred thousand dollar tax cut that’s paid for by asking thirty three seniors to each pay six thousand dollars more in health costs? That’s not right, and it’s not going to happen as long as I’m President.

The fact is, their vision is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America. As Ronald Reagan’s own budget director said, there’s nothing “serious” or “courageous” about this plan. There’s nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. There’s nothing courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill. And this is not a vision of the America I know.

Even more pithily, Rep. Anthony Weiner (a hero for the pithy liberal of late) shows the political irony behind the proposed budget in less than a minute:

Shining a light on exactly what Americans are getting out of the Ryan Budget–or perhaps, more accurately, what they are not getting–may be a way to energize political opposition in those who are happy with the structure of American economic life post-Depression.  The Democrats would be wise to continue reminding the public that the lack of a social safety net and widespread elder poverty were the factors precipitating the creation of Social Security and Medicare.  And maybe consider the notion that a society’s success is not measured by the welfare of its most wealthy members, but by its least.

But then again, maybe a bit of opaqueness could provide enough political cover to satisfy otherwise rabid (aka factious, in the terms of Federalist 10) constituencies that hold political power.  For example, it appears as though $27.4 billion of the $40 billion in “cuts” contained in the budget for fiscal year 2011 were cuts to funds that would never have been spent in the first place.

  • $2.5 billion comes from the most recent renewal of highway programs that can’t be spent because of restrictions set by other legislation.
  • $3.5 billion in savings were attributed to nipping in the bud an unused spending authority from a program providing health care to children of lower-income families.
  • $350 million was “saved” by “cutting” a one-year program enacted in 2009 for dairy farmers then suffering from low milk prices.
  • $650 million comes by not repeating a one-time infusion into highway programs passed last year.
  • Just last Friday, Congress approved Obama’s $1 billion request for high-speed rail grants, and thereby credited themselves with $1.5 billion in savings relative to last year.
  • $10 billion of the cuts come from targeting appropriations accounts previously used by lawmakers for so-called earmarks, though Republicans had already “banned” earmarks.
  • $5 billion in savings were claimed by capping payments from a fund awarding compensation to crime victims. Under an arcane bookkeeping rule — used for years by appropriators — placing an imaginary cap on spending from the Justice Department crime victims fund allows lawmakers to claim the entire contents of the fund as budget savings. The savings are self-described as “cuts” by legislators every year.
  • $1.7 billion left over and unspent from the previous appropriations for the 2010 census.
  • $2.2 billion in subsidies health insurance co-ops were “excised,” even though they are going to be funded as a result of the healthcare reform bill.

All of which adds up to a relatively dissatisfying result for Tea Baggers who were hoping for serious cuts and actually take a critical eye to the plan Republicans approved (though maybe that’s an empty set?).  Nonetheless, the Tea Baggers should be commended for their admirable job of rallying and deploying political energy.  Therein lies evidence of the biggest irony and challenge facing the Democrats: those who can be persuaded by facts and figures are rarely factious enough to get riled up into taking political action over them.  Usually, they just write blog entries about it.

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