Feb 152011
Social Security Poster: old man

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President Obama sent his budget proposal for 2012 to Congress yesterday, and before the ink was even dry, Republicans were swarming like piranha. According to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), “It would be better doing nothing than if we were to actually pass this budget.” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) said that the budget was based on “gimmicks,” and claimed that passing it would “be a national tragedy.”

White House estimates put the savings of the proposed budget at $1.1 trillion over 10 years, with two-thirds of the savings coming from spending cuts. Republicans have unanimously rejected that total, with Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) labeling it a “timid response to a grave challenge.” Shelby added that the proposal “ignores the will of the American people,” which is more than a little odd coming from somebody who supported the extension of the Bush tax cuts for the rich and openly shared his lunatic idea to fix Social Security by increasing the retirement “age every several years” — both positions being opposed by the majority of Americans.

But it’s easy to understand why Republicans are so vehemently opposed to the President’s budget proposal. While it does make substantial cuts, actually eliminating or reducing the funding for 200 federal programs, the spending reductions total only $33 billion for 2012, which is far less than the Republican’s draconian proposal to cut $60 billion in 2011. But more importantly, the White House budget also ends the Bush tax cuts for the rich, increases taxation on multinational corporations, eliminates $46 billion in subsidies for oil, gas and coal interests, and cuts $78 billion from the right’s most sacrosanct bucket — the Pentagon.

There is a choice to be made regarding the future of our nation, and the American people need to wake up and pay attention. Our national debt is currently over $14 trillion. The interest alone on that debt amounts to around $250 billion per year. The simple truth is that it doesn’t matter if we cut the deficit by $30 billion or $60 billion, or even the $100 billion promised by Republicans, or more — we will still be diving deeper into debt.

Take your pick, the President’s budget or whatever counter is offered by the Republicans — it doesn’t really matter, the spending cuts you’ll find will be largely symbolic. Arguing the merit of either proposal based on the depth of cuts is pure political theater. Either option will be kicking the can down the road. The substantive difference, the criteria upon which the proposals should be judged, lies in their differing methodologies.

Republicans contend that our economic problems are all the result of excessive spending, and their budget proposals reflect that belief. Democrats counter that the issue is more complex and propose a solution that addresses both revenue and expenditure. The result is that, while both parties talk about the sacrifice that will be needed going forward, only the Democratic position strives to ensure that it’s shared.

The fact of the matter is that adherence to the Republican method for addressing the debt will place ALL of the sacrifice on those who can least afford it. Their solitary focus on spending cuts combined with their unwillingness to address a bloated defense budget leaves no alternative. Those fortunate enough to remain wealthy in post-Recession America will not suffer from the proposed federal spending cuts. They only share in the sacrifice by paying higher taxes. And with military spending off the table, cuts to the remainder of the discretionary budget will only harm the poor, impede upward mobility and further weaken the middle class.

President Obama’s budget proposal may not go far enough, but at least it presents a method for shared sacrifice that can be expanded. It combines cuts to social programs with a slight trimming of defense and adds a bit of revenue through modest tax increases. The Republican alternative is more an effort best represented by an M.C. Escher impossible reality. The bottom line being that the budget simply cannot be balanced solely within the proposed Republican framework.

The situation may be complicated, but the math really isn’t. With a $14 trillion hole, only about $440 billion in discretionary spending outside of defense, and annual interest payments of $250 billion, the Republican plan set forth by Rep. Ryan doesn’t balance the budget until the 2060s and piles on $62 trillion in debt during the process. Republican fiscal responsibility is a fairy tale, sort of a contemporary version of the Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs.

But as insane as this GOP plan may appear, like an iceberg, there’s more to it than what we see on the surface. As House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) promised, the Republican budget will be “a serious document that will reflect the type of path we feel we should be taking to address the fiscal situation, including addressing entitlement reforms.” In GOP parlance, that means more pain for everyone but the wealthy, pain that will include a full frontal assault on our nation’s social safety nets.

The writing is on the wall. Because the Republicans refuse the responsible path of both increasing revenue and putting ALL spending on the table, they must attack the entitlements. This is possibly the GOP’s most egregious tactic and without doubt one of their favorite arenas for yarn spinning (a euphemism for telling bald-faced lies). Republicans would have everyone believe that Social Security is seriously broken, and that it’s partially to blame for the deficit — sadly, it doesn’t matter to them that both assertions have no basis in reality.

Republican spin on Social Security is nothing but more fable peddling. As evidenced in economist Dean Baker’s letter to Sen. Richard Shelby, sent after the Senator told a nice whopper about the program, even “if nothing is ever done, then Social Security would pay full benefits through the year 2037.” It would also be able to pay around 80% of benefits well into the second half of the century. With small tweaks, the program will remain vibrant for its entire 75-year horizon and beyond. But this narrative doesn’t fit the GOP model for fueling Wall St. profits through privatization, so the truth must be set aside and a tale must be spun.

Part of that Republican tale is the myth of a broken system, but even more disingenuous is their contention that we must fix Social Security in order to address the deficit. This is pure, unadulterated hogwash — grade-A falsehood — a freaking lie! The fact of the matter is that Social Security is not included in the deficit. It is both funded and expensed outside of the budget; it is an off-budget program, and it has a surplus balance of some $2.5 trillion. The truth of the matter is that Social Security hasn’t negatively impacted the deficit — it’s actually helped to mask its true magnitude.

Medicare is another story. Being included “on-budget,” shortfalls in Medicare funding do impact the budget, and program solvency will require much more than tweaking. But even in the case of Medicare, the Republican position is fraught with dishonesty. The problem with both Medicare and Medicaid is not inherent in the government programs but rather a function of the rising cost of healthcare. With Medicare the problem is exacerbated by the increasing number of elderly Americans, but unless we’re okay with just denying them medical services, we still need to seek a real solution.

Of course, a real solution for skyrocketing healthcare costs runs headlong into the Republican priority of maximizing corporate profits. So, never mind that nationally our spending on healthcare is approaching one-fifth of our GDP; forget about the fact that we spend more than double the OECD average yet achieve far worse health outcomes — and whatever you do, please ignore the man behind the curtain — the one atop any of the 10 largest medical insurers who saw their profits leap by 250% during the past decade. This is all SOP for the GOP. Their response to this upside-down scenario is not to reduce costs but to limit access with Medicare vouchers. Hurray for the red, white and blue!

Americans need to pull their heads out of the sand, open their eyes and come to grips with the fact that we’re being plundered by our nation’s economic elite. The Democrats are definitely complicit, but the Republicans are the soothsaying demons of the illicit extraction. Regardless the issue, they have but one position: protect the monied interests. Healthcare costs are soaring, so limit access. The defense budget expands 250%, from $333 billion under Clinton to $847 billion in 2010, and it’s off the table. Federal revenues drop from 21% of GDP in 2000 to 15% in 2010, and the answer is to cut taxes.

The Republican position is always simple because it is single-minded. It doesn’t have to consider the complexities of the economy, the nuances of trade policy, the impact of spending cuts, the most effective means to stimulate job growth, or the ethical implications of any of the above. No, the Republican Party’s laser-like focus on fending for the wealthy makes all decisions easy.

If they were truly concerned about cutting spending, they’d put their knife to defense: the largest and most wasteful of discretionary programs. If they really cared about healthcare costs, they strive to create competition with solutions like a public option. If they were truly concerned about jobs, they’d drop the nonsense about job-killing taxes and admit that tax cuts don’t create jobs. If they gave a flying flip about the average American, they’d drop the charade about having “a spending problem” and tell the truth about taxation.

That truth would include sharing the fact that in spite of a record $1.66 trillion in profits for 2010, revenue from corporate taxes was a meager $191 billion — a rate of around 11%. In full honesty, the GOP would also have to fess up about how overtaxed we aren’t. They’d have to admit that federal taxes are at historic lows. In fact, as a share of our nation’s economy, they’re at their lowest level since 1950. And if they really sought to inform instead of manipulate, they’d make sure that everyone understood that we have the third lowest total tax burden of all OECD nations, higher than only Mexico and Chile.

But honesty is far from being the GOP’s strong suit, and the wellbeing of average Americans is low on their list of priorities. So, we can all expect more distortion of facts, more narrowly focused policies, and more pain for the American people. But cheer up, there is a bright side: so long as you’re in the top 1 or 2 percent of Americans, you can rest assured that the GOP has your back. Of course, if you belong to the other 98%, watch out — because your back makes a real nice target for their budget knife.

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