Thursday, February 10, 2011

Sleep Aid (and Bad Dream Inducer).

I find myself with mixed feelings about the latest doings in Washington.

I am disgusted and furious at much of the majority House Republicans' agenda, particularly the airless and tyrannical social policies they wish to enact. But I find myself less decided about their doings in the realms of government spending. Of course the Pledge To America was a silly bit of grandstanding, a piece of feel-good pandering that didn't even attempt to make rational sense, and much of the Tea-Baggers' apoplexy about deficits can be dismissed as political opportunism, since (as I never tire of saying) there was relatively little outcry during the then-record deficits of their man W.

But even as I accept that the impending meltdown of our economy when President Obama took office was then universally believed to need urgent, immediate (and expensive) action--action which I largely supported and which is now believed by most non-Faux devotees to have done what was intended--there's no getting around the unsustainability of our current situation. Something must be done, and so far neither party is really talking about anything that even approaches a solution.

The news from the last couple of days includes stories about the House freshmen demanding that the $50 billion in Republican cuts be doubled to $100 billion, and frantic pleas from the progressive groups I follow to write in and protect this or that program (including funding for my beloved Public Radio). But I'm torn. The $100 billion Republicans are proposing is only about 1/15th of what we're currently overspending (relative to what we're taking in). If that were any smaller it would qualify as a drop in the bucket. If we find our current budgeting issues unacceptable, we'll need to accept something much worse than what Republicans are proposing before this is over with.

But there's good reason to be wary. To my way of thinking, the Republicans who are driving this process are so spectacularly wrong in so many ways and on so many issues, that when we're talking about economic matters (where my knowledge is very limited) common sense demands that we treat any of their proposals with an autonomic recoil of skepticism. And there are people whom I respect--like Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman--who insist that deficits in this instance are not particularly important; what matters now, he contends, is that government spend enough to break the back of the recession. (Indeed, before Obama the same Republicans who now find deficits unbearable were saying deficits didn't matter--polar-opposite stances from the same people cannot both be correct.) Krugman, in a nice mirror-image to the Republican noise machine, always sounds well-reasoned and sensible, and so on matters where my own knowledge is sparse I know which side I will choose as my counsel.

But if I understand the figures correctly, a full third of our government spending for this fiscal year is money we don't have. And the interest on that debt (currently about 6% of the total budget) will eventually overwhelm any possible receipts we might collect. Again I think: this simply cannot go on. A private household whose finances are in this kind of shape would be in foreclosure.

And so there's a part of me--a tiny, tiny part--which, even as I watch the Republicans attempt to bomb 51% of the population back to an existence of stone-age subservience and undermine the advances of science and rationality on every front; there's a tiny part of me that thinks "on THIS budget slashing stuff they may be onto something."

However. Even if we find some consensus on the scope and scale of the problem and reach a general conviction that big steps are needed, the specific proposals will careen off in irreconcilable directions. Fixing our budget woes is going to be painful for all of us, and the question becomes how that pain gets spread around. The Republicans are busy trying to chop every social program which conservatives find odious--public radio and charter schools and any moneys which could possibly find its way to supporting any woman who would have abortion--which is another act of power-mad theater and not any serious attempt to govern a diverse people. And regardless, none of these things add up to a hill of beans.

If we would make progress against a huge problem, we must employ huge weapons. The biggest items on the federal budget are 1) Social Security, 2) Medicare / Medicaid / CHIP and 3) military spending, which each account for about 20% of the total. Unemployment, Welfare and "Other mandatory spending" accounts for another 16%. Each of these items is a complicated minefield of power and politics and obfuscation which will make every cut contentious and difficult.

What I keep coming back to are two things: 1) At the end of Bill Clinton's terms we had a small surplus budget. My point here is not to praise the Democrats nor even to credit them necessarily for the policies which were responsible for the surplus--I'm not qualified to make that judgment; my point is only to say that only a decade ago we were at least not bleeding. This must surely be a first step in fixing our problem, and it would seem that what has transpired between then and now is a good place to look as a first step. And 2) I cannot get around the fact that our military spending--20% of the total budget--amounts to 90% of what the rest of the world spends on defense combined. As I've belabored before, our defense spending is nine times what China spends (a country of our same size and nearly four times our population), and we spend three times what all of Europe together spends; Europe, which has our same population and sits in the midst of all the countries against which we're frantically defending ourselves.

And one other thing. Upper income folks--and I qualify in this category--simply MUST pay more in taxes. We might aspire to a society where the rich get a free ride on the backs of the working classes, but we must first pay what we owe. Step One is to pay our debts. Then we can implement the rich man's tyranny after that.

As for the CPB witch hunt: this partisan politics at its Tea-Baggiest. The federal money going to NPR is a fraction of a fraction of a drop in the bucket, but why let common sense knock the foam off a perfectly good head of rage? I consider public radio an essential service, and I've been a supporter for years, but I understand that pain across the board means pain to things I care about. So I'll happily tax myself further and increase my bequest (and even celebrate NPR's liberation from Rethuglican meddling). But in the interest of fair play, I propose we stop subsidizing the churches with tax amnesty. As a first step, we should begin taxing anything ancillary to the church building and worship services: day cares, health clubs, social clubs, charities. And Congressfolks should pay for their own health care coverage.


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shrimplate said...

I'm a public radio junkie, too, and I recently upped my monthly contributions.

I think we could save a little bit of money by sensibly contracting our rather extensive projection of military power. I am sure that Diego Garcia is a wonderful place (snark) but do we really need to have a lilitary presence there? Cannot Europe and Japan do well without our bases there?

Wouldn't it be better to have the Navy defending our own ports, rather than the North Sea?

We could also take a look at our tax structure. There's really no sane reason why the rich muast sit on $2 trillion in funds, a portion of which could be put to other means. The rish have done very well over the past three decades and I'm sure it would hurt them little to ask that they pay some of their profits forward.