Feb 132011
Federal Spending

Image by Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com via Flickr

If somebody told you that they wanted to lose weight, but they wouldn’t increase exercise or cut their caloric intake, would you believe they were being earnest? How about a friend who says he seriously wants to get out of debt but has no plan to increase income and is only willing to trim the most marginal of expenses? If these cases seem to be obviously insincere, then why does anyone believe that House Republicans have any real interest in addressing the deficit?

Reuters reported shortly after 4:00pm EST on Friday that House Republicans have sharpened their pencils with further slashing in their spending-cut plan that will now total $60 billion. But even at this higher level, which is nearly double their total announced earlier this week, how serious is a plan that will trim the $14 trillion debt by only 4-tenths of 1%? The Republicans are already patting themselves on the back, but since $60 billion in cuts amounts to less than 3 months of interest payments on the debt, should Americans really join the celebration?

The specific problems with the Republican plan are many, but they really all emanate from the conservative framework on which the plan is based. First, and most obvious, is their ridiculous premise that the deficit must be addressed while simultaneously lowering taxes for everyone, including the very wealthy. This is analogous to that person who claims they want to lose weight but won’t exercise — they’ve cut the options in half and in turn doubled the stress on what’s left. With all trimming reliant upon appetite control, dieting starts to look a lot like starvation.

This is far from the way America handled this issue in our glorious past. While climbing out of the Great Depression, our country was hit with the expense of World War II. The economy was invigorated (from forced government spending) and unemployment turned to overemployment. But the national debt, which had been around 43% of GDP, did climb to more than 121% by the end of the war. Undeterred, a united America shared the burden and that debt was steadily paid down post-war, with the debt reduced every year through 1974 (except a slight bump in 1949).

Federal debt bottomed in 1981 at below 32% of GDP, and the remarkable recovery was achieved almost entirely without cuts in spending. In fact, federal spending has increased in all but 4 years since 1947. The solution to the huge debt brought about by WWII was not austerity, but exactly that which Republicans have removed from the table — high top marginal tax rates. The 24% rate in effect when the market melted down in 1929 was raised to 63% in the early 1930s and sat at 81% when the nation went to war. It spent many years over 90% and never dropped below 70% until 1982.

The notion in post-war America was that those who benefited most from our society should give back accordingly. It was an ethic based on the premise of unity, of patriotism and the greater good. The wealthy were taxed heavily on their top marginal dollars, but contrary to the scary scenarios of economic ruin predicted by contemporary Republicans, the economy flourished.

Our economy boomed into the mid 1970s, bringing about a sort of golden age of American capitalism. During that period the GDP multiplied many times over, the middle class swelled, unemployment remained low, and prosperity was shared by most Americans. The rich still got richer, but not at a rate significantly faster than the rest of the populace. Massive concentration of wealth was avoided, and the bottom 90% of Americans enjoyed their peak income year in 1973. Through it all, we remained a country united.

But the sense of unity that had thrived for more than 30 years was lost in the early 1980s. The oil crisis of the 1970s, coupled with a massive influx of imported goods, brought about extremely high inflation and resulted in the heavy loss of jobs. This confluence of events caused the American people to lose faith in the government programs that had given us decades of prosperity, and laid the groundwork for the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

Reagan was elected president by running on a government-is-the-enemy platform. He cut taxes, slashing the top rate first to 50% and later to 38.5%, while also dropping the bottom rate from 14% to 11%. Unemployment was slowly improved, averaging 7.5% for his eight year term, and the economy did recover. But before Reagan left office, he made the unprecedented move of lowering the top tax rate to 28%, while simultaneously raising the bottom rate to 15%.

So began the era of Reaganomics. Hacking the top tax rates while raising the bottom, along with huge increases in military spending and cuts to Medicaid, food stamps, education and the EPA, the pendulum had swung. America became a nation divided between the haves and have-nots, and the national debt began to swell. While the federal deficit had never climbed over $80 billion prior to Reagan, it never dropped below $128 billion during his term. After decades of paying down the debt, it soared from $1.1 trillion under Reagan’s first budget to $2.9 trillion for his last.

Deficit spending had existed under previous presidents, but for Reagan, it was the core of his budget policy. When Reagan left office, he left behind the budget framework for the new Republican Party. That framework is still being followed by John Boehner’s Republican House: lower the top rate, feed the corporations, cut the estate tax, deregulate anything and everything, protect defense spending, and cut whatever else remains. It is under the umbrella of these mutually exclusive objectives that Boehner’s House has created their plan to address the deficit.

The problem with the Republican budget planning process is not just that it exacerbates the deficit problem by insisting on tax cuts for the top 2% of Americans; it’s also the narrow slice of expenditures that they will even consider to subject to their budget knife.

Our federal budget for 2011 amounts to $3.64 trillion. That total is split between $247 billion of interest payments on the debt, $2.1 trillion in mandatory spending (consisting mostly of Social Security, Medicare, and pensions), and $1.2 trillion of discretionary spending. Since the vast majority of mandatory spending comes from entitlements, which are by definition funded outside of income tax revenues, this leaves the substantially smaller discretionary pie from which to cut — and once the Republicans protect their sacred cows, few slices are left on the table.

At approximately 58% of discretionary spending, the price tag for the military accounts for the lion’s share of the pie. This includes around $550 billion for the Department of Defense and another $170 billion for the Nuclear Security Administration, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs and related programs. Add another $159 billion for “Overseas Contingency Operations” (our Middle East wars), and the Republicans have stashed away all but 4 pieces of that 10-piece pie before it gets served up for cutting.

So, using the Republican framework for deficit reduction, the process starts with tax increases and military cuts pulled completely off the table. That leaves around $441 billion in government spending that’s subject to the Republican axe. Remove from that other Republican pet pots, like the $20 billion or so in oil company and other corporate subsidies, and it becomes evident how much the Republicans are like that person who allegedly wants to lose weight but won’t exercise. It is true that they’re willing to do some dieting, so long as they don’t have to give up any carbs or fat.

The result is a Republican budget proposal that leaves their campaign benefactors happy and instead cuts deeply into programs that benefit the needy and the nation as a whole. Their latest plan cuts billions from education and HUD, slashes more than $3 billion from the EPA, cuts from the FBI, reduces state and local law enforcement assistance, cuts from the FDA, trims nearly a $1 billion for energy efficiency efforts, cuts into science funding, NASA, the GSA, IRS and Treasury, trims the Army Corp of Engineers, slashes over $1 billion from FEMA First Responders, takes nearly $2 billion from job training, and drains billions more from the DOT. At a time of high unemployment and a decaying national infrastructure, over half ($33 billion) of the Republican’s planned cuts are at the expense of  labor and transportation/housing.

This is Republican economics at its finest. Their practices seem more consistent with some sort of Bizarro World Robin Hood, where the hero is actually a villain, and he steals from the poor to give to the rich. This is not the ethic upon which America was conceived. It is precisely the evil of elitist selfishness that the Founding Fathers strived to defeat.

Our present economic woes are not the result of over-taxation or excessive regulation. No, the causes of our nation’s ills are exactly the opposite. Our ailment is rampant greed and a steady decline in the middle class that stems largely from the massive concentration of wealth that’s occurred over the past 30 years. Today, the top 1% of Americans holds more financial wealth than the bottom 95%, and this Republican budget plan is nothing but another dose of the poison that brought us this disease.

Americans do need to be concerned about the federal debt, but the way to address it isn’t on the backs of the poor, working and middle classes. Our shared debt has been much larger as a portion of GDP in the past, and the formula for recovery and prosperity has already been proven. The Republicans refuse to follow that formula because their plan isn’t about the debt. If it was, tax increases and cuts in military spending would still be on then table.

The wellbeing of our nation is at stake, and the Republican House has proven itself to be either disinterested or completely incapable of prescribing the necessary action. It’s time for the American people to stand united and tell these thieves that we’ll no longer stand for their hypocritical nonsense. If they believe the deficit to be a major issue, then address it in earnest. If not, then abandon the false focus and help with the programs we need to create jobs and restore prosperity to the middle class.

Whatever the case — it’s time for all of our elected officials to cease their infernal shell game, stop the finger pointing, and for once dispense with the snow-job and TELL THE FREAKING TRUTH!

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