Monday, March 28, 2005

Finding Neverland

Watching the budget wrangling, or should I say mangling, occurring in the nation's capitol is like catching a glimpse of perpetual childhood. This is the Peter Pan-era of fiscal discipline ushered in by the Lost Boys of the GOP, a time when balanced budgets are a fantasy based on inverted logic and contradictory premises. How else could you explain the fact that the President's own plan to reduce the deficit in half over the next half decade includes the proviso that his own tax cuts, that he will launch a spirited fight to make permanent, be allowed to expire?

But just as some have criticized the recent
Hollywood biopic of Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie for concealing the moral failings of the author, so too does the GOP's perpetual fiscal adolescence have a dark side that conceals dubious ethical behavior. Bob Herbert wrote a scathing critique of the nuts and bolts of the new era of budgetary piracy that would make Captain Hook blush in its ruthless devotion to the laws of the jungle - or high seas.

While the press and the public are distracted by one sensational news story after another - Terri Schiavo, Michael Jackson, steroids in baseball, etc. - the president and his party have continued their extraordinary campaign to undermine the programs that were designed to fend off destitution and provide a reasonable foundation of economic security for those not blessed with great wealth....

President Bush believes in an "ownership" society, which means that except for the wealthy, you're on your own. The president's budget would cut funding for Medicaid, food stamps, education, transportation, health care for veterans, law enforcement, medical research and safety inspections for food and drugs. And, of course, it contains big new tax cuts for the wealthy.
Is that what it looks like when family values are ascendant in Washington? But look on the bright side, same sex marriages will be made more difficult to attain. Aaah, all is right in the world.

These are the new American priorities. Republicans will tell you they were ratified in the last presidential election. We may be locked in a long and costly war, and federal deficits may be spiraling toward the moon, but the era of shared sacrifices is over. This is the era of entrenched exploitation. All sacrifices will be made by working people and the poor, and the vast bulk of the benefits will accrue to the rich.

President Bush has proposed more than $200 billion worth of cuts in domestic discretionary programs over the next five years, and cuts of $26 billion in entitlement programs. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which analyzed the president's proposal, said:

"Figures in the budget show that child-care assistance would be ended for 300,000 low-income children by 2009. The food stamp cut would terminate food stamp aid for approximately 300,000 low-income people, most of whom are low-income working families with children. Reduced Medicaid funding most certainly would cause many states to cut their Medicaid programs, increasing the ranks of the uninsured."

Education funding would be cut beginning next year, and the cuts would grow larger in succeeding years. Food assistance for pregnant women, infants and children would be cut. Funding for H.I.V. and AIDS treatment would be cut by more than half a billion dollars over five years. Support for environmental protection programs would be sharply curtailed. And so on.
But wait, it gets better. As you might have guessed, these mammoth cuts in programs that help the infirmed, the young, the destitute, and the hard working are being sold as the necessary "tough choices" demanded by the mounting debt. But just as tax cuts for the wealthy are responsible for creating that debt, more tax cuts for the wealthy are exacerbating the situation and revealing a deep and bitter hypocrisy.

Conservatives insist the cuts are necessary to get the roaring federal budget deficit under control. But they have trouble keeping a straight face when they tell that story. Laden with tax cuts, the president's proposal will result in an increase, not a decrease, in the deficit. Shared sacrifice is anathema to the big-money crowd.

The House has passed a budget that is similar to the president's, except it contains even deeper cuts in programs that affect the poor. In the Senate, a handful of Republicans balked at the cuts proposed for Medicaid. Casting their votes with the Democrats, they were able to eliminate the cuts from the Senate budget proposal. The Senate also added $5.4 billion in education funding for 2006.

All the budgets contain more than $100 billion in tax cuts over the next five years, which makes a mockery of the G.O.P.'s budget-balancing rhetoric. When Congress returns from its Easter recess, the Republican leadership will try to reconcile the differences in the various proposals. Whatever happens will be bad news for ordinary Americans. Big cuts are coming. [emphasis added]
It leaves me flabbergasted. The budget designed to reduce the deficit actually increases the deficit because the cuts in programs were offset, and then exceeded, by more and bigger tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. But hey, what's health care for impoverished children compared to the health of a millionaire's stock portfolio? If you put your faith in Jesus the way our President has, you will see that the millionaire's tax cuts are what Jesus would endorse. Honest. It's all there in the good book, you know that bit about it being harder for the meek and down trodden to get into heaven than a camel through the eye of the needle, and that other part about compiling as many Earthly possessions as possible so you can better follow Christ and broadcast your ministry. I think that's how it went.

Herbert closes on a low note:

The advances in areas like education, antipoverty programs, health services, environmental protection and food safety were achieved after struggles that, in some cases, took many decades. To slide backward now (hurting millions of people in the process) because of a desire to siphon funds from those programs and hand them over as tax cuts to the wealthiest members of our society, is obscene.

This is not a huge national story. It's just the way things are. It was Herbert Hoover who said: "You know, the only trouble with capitalism is capitalists. They're too damn greedy." [emphasis added]
Unfortunately, the truth is, Santa Claus doesn't exist and neither does the Easter Bunny or the tooth fairy. There, now I went and made little Tommy Delay cry. But seriously, our current geopolitical strategy requires a healthy flow of revenue to Treasury, but unabashed greed actually undermines these vital missions by drying up sources of capital. Wars require money, peacekeeping the same, and the President has unveiled a "bold" foireign policy that is requiring enormous sums to implement. Homeland security needs funding, and fighting terrorism at home and abroad isn't cheap. On top of that, gutting social services will weaken our dynamic middle class which fuels our economy through robust consumer spending. And letting the dollar plunge without any means of applying the brakes should things accelerate beyond what wisdom would dictate is passing the keys of monetary policy to a drunk driver with a lead foot. But the nation can't afford a car wreck.

Just juxtapose this budgetary chicanery with
another article in the Times which tells how some of the Pentagon's high-tech plans to usher in a new era of military equipment and strategy may be bumping against a funding ceiling. I'll leave it to people like the Generalistimo to parse the wisdom of such programs, but isn't it telling that the "tough on defense" crowd is creating a situation in which vital national security issues are taking a back seat to a tax cutting fetish? Isn't our military edge what sets us apart from the rest of the world, or so the unipolarists would have us believe?

The good news is, some Republican governors who had previously been amongst the loudest and proudest tax-cut devotees have recently had to reverse course when faced with that nagging little killjoy called reality. They've "grown up" so to speak and discovered that effective government requires some fiscal flexibility, and actual revenues. Somewhat surprisingly, big business is one of the loudest voices calling for higher taxes and more spending on programs like education and transportation infrastructure and other areas that they rely on to recruit workers and streamline commerce. The question is, when will the pixie dust lose its luster for those gravity defying children in charge of the nation's purse strings? Because if you listen, in the distance you can hear a ticking clock.

[Update:Matthew Yglesias has an interesting post up about the disparities of wealth in America, even amongst the wealthiest Americans.

Tyler Cowen quotes Jeffrey Sachs noting that the 400 richest taxpayers in the United States had a combined income of $69 billion in 2000. This comes up in the course of a discussion of global inequality, comparing that $69 billion to "the $57 billion in combined income of Botswana, Nigeria, Senegal, and Uganda." That's a lot of inequality. I think, though, that the inequalities this embodies are worth putting even into the American context.
Matt goes on to discuss how this upper echelon of the upper bracket can dwarf the wealth of people that would otherwise be considered wealthy and how this skews perceptions and distorts priorities.

This is an important and, I think, problematic social phenomenon. Not especially because we need to cry for the sad case of the average member of the top 20 percent, or even the average member of the 60-80 percent bracket, but because it distorts a lot of people's thinking. This extreme inequality at the top does a lot to explain, I think, why you see a lot of people who make more than 85-90 percent of the population refusing to think of themselves as rich. Once you enter into the Rich Zone, you start coming into contact with people who are way, way, way, way richer than you are. If you run into somebody who has twice -- to say nothing of 10 or 100 -- times your earnings, it's hard to think of yourself as rich. After all, you're closer to making $0 and being out on the streets than you are to making what he makes. Then the flipside is that it becomes hard for people outside the Rich Zone to see what's really happening with tax policy. Everybody in the top 20 percent got some money from Bush's tax cut, but almost a quarter of it went to the very, very narrow segment of people in the top one percent of households. I don't have the numbers in front of me, but if you could look at how big a share went to the top 0.1% or the top 0.01% it would get even more shocking. That's not the prosperous guy who lives on the nice house at the end of the tree-lined street on the other side of town we're talking about, that's a guy who makes ten or even a hundred times as much as the prosperous guy on the other side of town. [emphasis added]
But, you know, by all means continue to tell me why cutting taxes for these people is the moral thing to do, and how programs that tend to the vital needs of hard working Americans, children, and the infirmed are too much of a burden on our poor poor billionaires. Remind me again of the justifications used by the party of "values" - the politicians that claim to have a direct hotline to God and his representative Jesus Christ - to continue to divert the government's revenues to the bank accounts of the elitists' elite. Finally, if you could, just refresh my memory about this horrible class warfare being waged by labor unions and the Democrats that is supposedly so unfair to the people on top of the top's top.]

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