Friday, July 15, 2011

The Unkindest Cuts of All

Yesterday on Facebook I was taken out to the intellectual woodshed for a wire-brushing by my friend Bob, who took me to task over his contention that I was “casting blame [at our political classes] very one-dimensionally.” He accused me of “…devolving into dogmatism …,” noting that, “All your spears seem to be reserved for the Republicans and you have no criticism for the other side…”

Yes, I tend to be hard on Republicans because I'm basically conservative, and I expect better behavior and clear, rational discussion of serious issues from people that are supposed to be thoughtfully and seriously conservative. Unfortunately, there appear to be no rational, thoughtful Republicans left … only a bunch of unyielding, unthinking demagogues led around by the nose by Grover Norquist and the Tea Party, reduced to shouting slogans and petulantly refusing to compromise on any issue.

All that said, in one regard I agree 100% with the Republicans (incredible as that may seem): government spending – in relation to income – is out of control. Both parties are at fault, even though Republicans insist it's all the fault of the big-spending Democrats (it's worth remembering that the Republicans are the party of a president that fought two wars on credit while cutting the taxes that might have helped pay for them). Democrats, on the other hand, believe there’s nothing wrong with spending money we don't have on social programs that are often of questionable value. Every member of Congress tries to bolster his or her chances of reelection by steering government spending for the benefit of the home district, or to curry favor with particular unions, ethnic groups, special interests, or whatever. It's a game everybody plays, and it's cynical and disingenuous for either side to claim otherwise.

Yes, the real issue, as the Republicans rightly point out, is spending, which absolutely must be brought under control. Simply raising taxes to generate a larger amount of money to spend only makes the problem worse. But when the deficit is as huge as it is, refusing to even hypothetically consider the possibility of maybe discussing raising taxes to help lower the deficit strikes me as, to say the least, irresponsible.

So, we have to cut spending, and we have to at least think about taxes. The two are related, no matter how much the hyperconservative right would wish it otherwise. Today, I'll talk about cutting spending. On Sunday, I'll look at taxes.

Disclaimer: everything I know about economics could be placed in a thimble and still leave room for a herd of elephants and a brass band. I'm just sayin' ...

Let's start at the beginning. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution says:

“The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States…”

That seems pretty clear to me: Congress can spend money, and has the authority impose taxes to get the money to spend. So far, so good. The devil is, of course, in the details.

What are the common defense and general welfare functions of government that tax revenue should pay for? The Constitution doesn’t say. They are easier to identify at the state and local level of government – things like police and fire protection, schools, and sanitation are services we generally expect our local (state and below) governments to provide. The higher one goes in the government, though, the less obvious are the things we can all agree should be paid for by tax revenue – most of us would probably agree on the need for an army, a court system, and the general legislative and executive mechanisms of government, but how about educational standards? Regulation of commerce? Social Security? Food safety and purity? Air traffic control? Workplace safety? Protecting minorities from discrimination? Aid to poor families? Printing every government publication in both English and a million other languages (because why should immigrants have to learn to speak English)?

Riddle me this, Batman: what should we cut, and by how much?

It’s easy to throw out sound bites like “$4 trillion in cuts,” but when you come down to naming the specific things to cut that will add up to that $4 trillion, you’ll be deafened by the bellowing of all the oxen being gored. Every government program you can name has its ardent defenders who can marshal great throngs of supporters, petitions with thousands of signatures, and reinforced platoons of expensive lobbyists to argue that it is vital to the life of the Republic and can’t possibly be terminated or reduced in any way.

So, what would you cut?

I have some suggestions (which I'll post here in a few days), and many people have logged their suggestions at websites like The National Taxpayers Union and Representative Eric Cantor's "You Cut Citizen Review of Government." But it's Congress that will have to make the tough decisions and incur the wrath of the constituents who will be angered by specific reductions.

I wish I had the answers, but I don't. I have ideas, and so do many others. What we don't have are leaders with the political will and courage to make the tough decisions in spite of pressure from vested interests (including you and I) ...

What should we cut? And what else do we need to do to dig our way out of the current economic crisis? Come back on Sunday, when we'll look at the unpleasant but necessary topic of taxes, and continue our discussion of the things we should cut.

Have a good day and a great weekend. Tomorrow is Cartoon Saturday, and not a day too soon.

More thoughts coming.



The Mistress of the Dark said...

We cut programs for stupid pickle research!

Gov't employees start paying for their Health Care just like the rest of us.

Cut their expense accounts and their pay.

Make them feel like REAL Americans.

Money needs to be spent on important things like infrastructure and EDUCATION...where all these wonderful REPUBLICANS seem to go first for their cuts.

I do wonder if they remember that it was a Democrat that got us out of Debt...and a Republican that dug us this far in.

Bob said...

Not to be too argumentative...but it was a Democrat president and a Republican-controlled Congress that got us out of debt. And it was a single-party legislative/executive team that dug us back in (even deeper)--and both parties can share that blame. When the Congress rubber-stamps the President's spending plan, you get no checks and balances.

Mike said...

3% income/dividend surtax, no exceptions, until all the money borrowed for Iraq is paid back.

KKTSews said...

BTW, there is no such thing as an expense account for government employees. As far as I know (and I've done a lot of money stuff for the military) the only thing comes close is a very tightly controlled and regulated account for entertaining foreign dignitaries.