Saturday, October 30, 2010

As You Go

B: I take heat, from time to time, for being a partisan. Let me be clear: I’m not a Democrat because I like wearing a sweater with a triumphant donkey on it, or because I’m drawn naturally to blue bumper stickers. I’m a Democrat because I fall into the liberal half of the political spectrum, and for liberal policies the Democrats are the only horse (or donkey) in town.

But if I’m honest, I’m more liberal than the Democrats. I don’t blindly follow whatever the party says, because I often think they don’t go far enough. As an example, the best way to wring the remaining wasted money out of the healthcare bureaucracy would have been a single payer system. The Democrats might be the liberal party in our system- but they’re realistically only center-left on the spectrum. I wanted to say all that because I know people take whatever I say with a grain of salt, and I don’t want to be written off as a younger George Soros.

I don’t stump for any particular party; I want what’s best for the country. You, and I’m talking to the interviewer here, not those of you reading at home (or at work)- but I think you do, too. I think most Democrats in office this last couple of years have, as well. Honestly, that’s why, even when health care reform was unpopular- largely because of a campaign of misinformation by the opposition- they passed it. Not because they’re arrogant, but because they thought it was the best thing to do for the country.

Republicans, if you want a point of contrast, refused to participate in crafting the bill at all. Their strategy for the past two years has been to stall the legislative process on everything; if at the end of two years you can claim your opponents haven’t accomplished anything, great- if you can claim they’ve been partisan and hardly accomplished anything, even better. Tactically, their plan was sound.

But by and large I think most of us don’t vote for a party or its agenda- and certainly not for what’s solely in their best interest- but because we want our country to be great. We can have honest disagreements about what that means, about philosophies that differ on what are the best ways to help the economy or the vulnerable. But those conversations are a necessary part of the process of our country finding its way- and without those conversations, the process falls apart.

Specifically, I wanted to talk about a particular proposal. During the Clinton administration, one reason the budget was balanced was a 1990 reform called “Paygo.” New spending or tax cuts had to be offset by higher taxes or spending cuts- any changes had to be budget neutral. In 2001 “Paygo” ended, and massive deficits boomed. When they retook control of the Congress, Democrats reinstituted pay as you go rules. But the current House Minority Leader, John Boehner

DI: Aw, come on, you didn’t pronounce it “boner”

B: Boehner has proposed a “Cutgo” reform, where new spending would have to be compensated for with spending cuts. However, there is no proviso for cutting taxes- so things like extending the Bush tax cuts, at a cost of $370 billion dollars a year, could be done without cutting the budget at all. And the “Pledge to America” includes other tax cut proposals, too.

This is dangerous. It paves the way for still higher deficits by masking the intention to cut revenue without cutting expenses. It’s reckless.

DI: Let me advocate for devilmancy, here. Aren’t the Democrats in favor of extending some of the tax cuts, and aren’t they also responsible for the deficits?

B: Democrats do want to extend some of the tax cuts, that’s true, and something I’m against- whether or not we’re talking about an income group I fall into.

But we’ve had deficits most years going back to Reagan, but the increases began in 2009, the last year George W. Bush’s presided over the budget. The deficit was forecast at $400 billion dollars, an increase over the previous year, but a moderate one. Then the economy tanked, and federal receipts were $600 billion dollars less than expected, bringing revenue below 2005 levels; the economy bottoming out also increased the number of the unemployed and the poverty of the destitute, accounting for most of the rest of the increase in the deficit. 2010 receipts are expected to be on par with 2005- estimated to within 8 billion dollars of each other, and the deficit is expected to remain relatively static year over year. Mandatory spending, covering programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and unemployment, is about equal to total federal revenue for this year, leaving non-discretionary spending in the cold (a full half of which is gobbled up by Defense).

Some of 2010’s weaker receipts reflect the poor economy, but $300 billion came from tax cuts buried in the reviled stimulus bill- that’s what the President means when he says he’s cut people’s taxes. And T.A.R.P., unpopularly known as the bailouts, was a bipartisan law, approved by three-quarters of Democrats and half of Republicans, and endorsed and signed into law by Bush. It’s also expected to turn a modest profit, once all the loans are repaid. These two measures together are a large part of the reason why business profits are up 62% from the start of 2009 to the middle of 2010. The economy is righting itself- though I understand how meaningless that is for someone who’s out of work. These facts are often obscured by a political conversation focused on spin and blame, but there aren’t two Americas: there’s one. We are united states, a united people, and it’s our debt, and our future at stake.

Some of our conflict stems from opposing views, but that’s why it’s so important to find avenues where we can work with our ideological opponents. In times of economic stagnation, Democrats might favor stimulative policies like those suggested by John Maynard Keynes. The opposing side usually follows the philosophy of Milton Friedman, and policies similar to the lassaiz-faire strategy associated with Hoover during the Great Depression- (though it’s a bit unfair to that President, who was far from a theoretical purist and did try a few mixed measures). Whether or not government spending can stimulate an economy might still be an open question, but the evidence to me points to potential, and I sense there’s a desire from most Americans for the government to help. And deciding on the best course is a conversation to have with ourselves and our leaders.

The deficit is a worrying thing, and neither party is blameless here. The Democrats want to extend some of the Bush tax cuts- the bulk of them, really. But if we’re concerned about the debt and taxes- and at this point we all should be- we need to have adult conversations about it. We need leaders who will seek difficult answers, rather than settle for simple distractions.

I’m not telling you to vote the way I will. I just want you to think, as you go out there to vote, about what’s going to be best for our country and its future. And it is our country: we share in its rights, its privileges, and its responsibilities. And I hope, for all our sakes, that we make the right choice.

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