Thursday, February 17, 2011

The gerbil in the room

Do you see the problem here? Sure, the American people are incredibly ignorant about federal spending. On average, we think that foreign aid is 27% of the budget! And we think that "wasteful" government spending is anything that goes to someone else.

But how about some real change? How about trying to educate us, rather than simply accepting that ignorance and trying to take advantage of it politically? (After all, the Republicans are already masters of that tactic. You won't beat them at their own game.)

Note Mike Thompson's commentary:
What’s a caricaturist to do when reality becomes a caricature? On the heels of an agreement that the New York Times estimates will add $700 billion to the nation’s debt by cutting taxes for the richest 2 percent of Americans, President Barrack Obama has proposed a budget that includes cutting heating assistance for the poor. According to ABC News, up to 3 million families would be affected by this proposed cut alone.

This is what we’ve come to?

Crazy, isn't it? Sure, massive tax increases would not help our economic recovery, but neither will cuts in government spending. We have to make smart choices here. Obama could have gone to the mat for the American people, refusing to cut taxes on the richest 2 percent of Americans at a time of record-breaking budget deficits. After all, it's tax breaks for the middle class that's actually stimulative (though still a very expensive form of stimulus).

Defense spending is the really big elephant in the room, considering our current situation. As a nation, we spend seven times as much on defense as the next biggest spender. And quite frankly, destroying our economy, our system of education, and our infrastructure is not the way to stay on top militarily, anyway. We are militarily strong because our economy is strong, not the other way around.

Besides, who's the enemy? Do we really need that kind of military budget to defend against a rag-tag bunch of religious terrorists? Or has defense spending simply taken on a life of its own?

Think about it. What kind of country can create and support a powerful military over the long-term? These days, it's not about finding warm bodies for cannon-fodder. A high tech military requires a technically-advanced people. Education is not just critical for developing and operating advanced technology, but for competing in the global economy in order to fund it, too.

Just declaring, over and over again, that We're Number One! isn't going to do it. It's like depending on your cheerleaders in order to build a strong football team. It takes more than that. But Republicans are faith-based. They think the only thing that matters is wishing something to be true. If we watch "Rambo" enough, it will make us tough.

And as a nation, taking from the poor in order to give to the rich hardly makes any economic sense, even leaving aside the morality of it. Sure, given the pervasive racism in this country, a black Democrat can't afford to speak out on behalf of the poor, not too much. (Poor whites get far more assistance than minorities, since there are more of them, but that's not how most people imagine it.)

But that hardly means Democrats need to present themselves as Republican-lite, either. Instead of adopting, and thereby confirming, Republican rhetoric (which is generally false - demonstrably false - anyway), why not show us a new way forward? Er, remember all that "change" stuff? I must say that Barack Obama has been terribly disappointing in this respect.

OK, sure, it's supposed to be politically dangerous to do the right thing. But is it, really? After all, how is Republican-lite working out for Democrats these days? That hardly seems to be a winning play, does it? And let's face it, no matter how much Obama agrees with the GOP, they will never like him. Their opposition is political. No matter what he does or doesn't do, their complete opposition is absolutely guaranteed.

Besides, Republicans aren't all that popular these days either, you know? So instead of imitating them, maybe a smart politician should choose a different path. How about trying to explain reality to the American people? How radical is that? Right now, Republicans deny reality and Obama tries to avoid mentioning it. How's that working out for us?

Here's reality:  We got into this hole because of tax cuts and stupid, unfunded wars we started for no good reason. And then, thanks to deregulation and the bubbles created by giving windfalls to the rich, we collapsed our economy, which automatically increased the deficit even further.

We can't keep doing the same things we've been doing and expect to have any better result. At the same time, we have to consider both the short-term and long-term implications of everything. Considering that we need to cut spending but also start investing in America again (as Paul Krugman points out, we're currently eating our future), this won't be easy. But it is possible.

To cut the deficit, we need both spending cuts and tax increases. Both need to be targeted so that they have the least impact on our short-term economic activity but the greatest impact on long-term fiscal health and on investments our nation desperately needs (like our children). And if you really want to cut the fat in federal spending, you should probably look at where we actually spend the most money.

GOP solutions are a joke. Tax-cuts for the rich are the solution to everything. Of course, we tried that solution during the Bush administration, and it was a complete and utter disaster. (At first, Republicans proposed cutting taxes on the rich because economic times were good. Then they proposed the exact same thing because economic times were bad. Obviously, they were just trying to find an excuse, any excuse, for cutting taxes on the rich.)

So why don't the Democrats suggest we try dealing with reality, instead of ignoring it?

Tax increases for the wealthiest of Americans will lower the deficit while having the least effect on our current economic activity. And, after all, we're only talking about returning rates to what they paid under Ronald Reagan, maybe. (If we suggested returning rates to what they paid in the 1950s, there would really be hysteria on the right.)

We've been cutting taxes for decades, and it's only driven us deeper and deeper into debt. Shouldn't that tell us something?

As far as cutting spending goes, well, let's look at where we actually spend the money. First, there's no reason that we need to spend seven times as much on military spending as any other country in the world, especially when our only enemies are a ragged handful of religious fanatics - and especially when continuing down this path will weaken our military in the long-term!

We spend a lot on Social Security, too, but in the short-term, it produces surpluses. In the long-term, it needs a fix, but only a minor one. After all, we already increased the retirement age a bit. And most of the increase in lifespan in the past hundred years has come from cutting childhood mortality, which doesn't affect Social Security at all. (I've been meaning to write a separate post about this.) Basically, just eliminating the earnings cap would do most of what's necessary here - and that wouldn't affect the vast majority of Americans in the slightest.

Medicare is the big problem over the long-term. And it's not an easy problem, either. But that's mostly because even minor fixes result in hysterical screams about "death panels" and "socialism" from the loons on the right (encouraged by amoral Republicans simply for political advantage). Even when Democrats adopted Republican health care reform and worked hard to make sure it also decreased the deficit, Fox "News" and other sources of right-wing propaganda succeeded in demonizing it.

Well, any way you look at it, we Americans need to be smarter than that. And maybe we're not. Maybe we're doomed as a nation. But if you assume that, what's the point of trying to do anything at all? You might as well assume that we can learn something - most of us, at least - if it's presented clearly and rationally. Because if that's not true, there's no hope for us anyway.

Maybe Obama should treat us Americans like rational adults. That's a radical thought, isn't it? Yeah, if you've spent any time at all on the Internet, it seems rather like a Hail Mary pass. But who knows? Maybe we'll surprise ourselves.

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