Saturday, March 24, 2012

Budgets and priorities

Can we Occupy the budget debate? The Congressional Progressive Caucus actually has a good proposal on the table, but the chattering class and the press corps are fixated on Representative Ryan's plan, which doesn't
meet any criteria of reasonableness or rationality. But it does meet the criteria of "austerity," the idea that addressing the "debt crisis" takes precedence over all other possible priorities. What is to be done? Fortunately, grassroots organizers have some ideas and are gearing up to act.

According to the Congressional Progressive Caucus, they've come up with a budget that, within ten years, would eliminate the deficit and produce a $31 billion surplus to boot. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) did an analysis (PDF) of their handiwork. The EPI states that:

National budget policy should adequately fund up-front job creation, invest in long-term economic growth, reform the tax code, and put the debt on a sustainable path while protecting the economic security of low-income Americans and growing the middle class. The proposal by the Congressional Progressive caucus achieves all of these goals.

Significantly, the Progressive budget proposal begins with the need to rebuild America's physical infrastructure. Roads and railways, power plants and sewage systems, that is, real stuff that directly affects people's lives. By contrast, the House of Representatives 2013 Budget Proposal, modestly termed "The Path to Prosperity," takes as its main priority the heading off of a "debt-fueled crisis." Is there any such crisis to be avoided? That's far from clear.

Let's take student loans as an example of a debt problem. The total amount owed to the Federal Government on student loans just now hit the $1 trillion mark. According to President Obama, as reported by Oregon Live, the need to repay "the massive debt overhang ... casts a dark shadow on millions of Americans and their future."

"Student loan debt has surpassed credit card debt for the first time ever," the president told the Colorado crowd. "Living with that kind of debt means making some tough choices when you're first starting out. You put off buying a house or starting a business or starting a family. When a big chunk of your paycheck goes to student loans, that's painful not just for the middle class, but it's harmful for our economy because that money's not going to help businesses grow."
"Student debt is a huge, huge problem for everyone," says University of Oregon President Richard Lariviere. "It's skewing the choices that students make in terms of what they can do afterward. It deters significant elements of the population who should be in school from going to school."

So, obviously, having to owe either the government or a private business lots of money for one's education is an unpleasant problem that no one wants to have, but student loans can be paid off over ten or more years. Applying the term "crisis" to the student loan situation sounds to me like you're applying an awfully overheated, melodramatic description to a long-term problem. It's just not clear that the description of "crisis" even remotely applies. Likewise, it's far from clear that government debt constitutes a "crisis" either. Certainly, it can be a "huge, huge problem," but it's difficult to see why people's needs for an up-to-date infrastructure should be deferred so that America can solve a "debt-fueled crisis."

Next to last paragraph from a very interesting piece on a favorite blog of mine:

There will come a day in the future when regular people look back at us, thunderstuck. "Deficits? That's what these idiots cared about? Their big political arguments were about paying back deficits on bonds held by bankers the government bailed out, right during the middle of a recession, while ignoring the impending climate change disaster? Not only ignoring it, but desperately trying to figure out how to extract more oil? Just how stupid were these people, anyway?" [emphasis in original]

I concluded a long time ago that the desire for aristocracy was a permanent, inborn, inherent trait. I don't connect that desire to any sort of Marxist theory because I believe the desire long pre-dates capitalism. I guess we have to add, as a corollary to that, that the desire to impose austerity upon those who aren't members of the aristocracy is a related phenomenon. After all, aristocrats like to feel that there's a real and substantive difference between themselves and everyone else. Maybe when working people enjoy middle-class existences, that is a source of anger, or at least disgruntlement, for aristocrats.

One noticeable claim made by the Chairman of the House Budget Committee, Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) is:

Senate Democrats – for over 1,000 days – have refused to pass a budget.

This is a more-or-less true claim. certainly it is true that no budget has been passed for over 1,000 days, but is that because Senate Democrats have "refused" to pass one? Back in June 2010, the reason that the then-Majority Leader Steny Hoyer gave was that 

“It isn’t possible to debate and pass a realistic, long-term budget until we’ve considered the bipartisan commission’s deficit-reduction plan, which is expected in December.”

Of course, "Cat Food Commission II" failed to produce any such plan as austerity, the underlying philosophy of the commission to begin with, was and is an incredibly bad idea. The Hill confirmed in February 2012 that Republicans were using Ryan's "1,000 days" talking point, but Democrats have said that the deal reached in August of last year serves as a budget as it calls for everything to remain as it was in late 2010 (Before the mid-term election of that year) with the exception of a few specified cuts. There's no real question that Democrats want a very, very different budget from what Republicans want. As Slate puts it:

There are two issues: Republicans who won't vote for a final bill unless it contains "riders" related to health care, abortion, and funding for the EPA; and those who think anything less than the $61 billion in cuts is too little.

The Democrats are not simply being stubborn for the sake of being stubborn. It's that Republicans want things to go along with a budget resolution that Democrats simply can't stand to see put into legislation. So no, the story is nowhere near as simple and straightforward as "Senate Democrats ... have refused to pass a budget."

Ryan has lost some of his "bipartisan" cover with the clarification from Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) that he's in favor of the original white paper that he and Ryan put together, but is not in favor of the Republican budget plan for this year, which makes Ryan and Republicans at least a bit more exposed. Wyden showed in The Hill piece that's he's a staunch Blue Dog Democrat by stating that he was in favor of the plan put forward by the two co-chairmen of "Cat Food Commission I," Chester Bowles and Alan Simpson. The Commission never put out a plan in its own name as they couldn't get the necessary number of members to all sign onto the plan supported by the two co-chairs. I believe it says something about Wyden's credibility that he refers to "the deficit-reduction plan drafted by the Simpson-Bowles commission" when there was actually never any such agreed-upon plan. What he means is "the plan put forward by the two co-chairs" as the commmission as a whole was a failure.   

Critics of the Ryan have been numerous. Economist Dean Baker points out that Ryan's plan preserves the big three New Deal/Great Society programs, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and would leave defense expenditures intact or even greater, but would eliminate pretty much all of the rest of the US Government. Forbes says the Ryan plan "would result in huge benefits for high-income people and very modest—or no— benefits for low income working households" and "would likely result in a huge tax cut for those who need it least." The WaPo states that:

Bowing to demands from conservatives influenced by the tea party movement, House leaders are pressing to protect the Pentagon in 2013 while cutting budgets for domestic agencies below levels set during last summer’s showdown over the federal debt ceiling. The decision has alarmed both Democrats and some GOP moderates, who said the move could spark a fresh clash over the annual bills needed to keep the government running into the new fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

Fox News, of course, loves the Ryan plan, lauding Ryan's "courage." The Cleveland Plain Dealer editor Kevin O'Brien thinks the Ryan plan "would not cut government far enough fast enough." The fact that "Ryan's budget would devastate children, seniors and people with disabilities" is treated as either untrue or just a bothersome technicality. And Jared Bernstein asks a series of 10 questions that he (and I) don't think Ryan is willing to answer on the record.

So it is a puzzle. Why is the chattering class and the press corps in Washington DC busy discussing the Ryan plan and not that of the Congressional Progressive Caucus? Fortunately, many grassroots groups and organizations are taking action to shift the national political conversation away from deficits and toward the priorities of the 99%.

We know the people want to be composing our national budget around real priorities, not around manufactured austerity-driven crises. The strength of this need is precisely what caused the explosive growth of the Occupy movement last fall. Locally, our own Occupy Philly is organizing around this shift in a campaign to protect food distribution programs that serve the poor and the homeless. It appears also, that just about all the major anti-war groups around the country are addressing economic issues along with war and peace issues. For the mid-May gathering in Chicago, the War Resisters League, United for Peace & Justice and the American Friends Service Committee, along with many others, issued a list of five demands, the third of which is: "Substantial reductions in U.S. and NATO military spending to fund our communities and to meet human needs." is going to try to draw all this together with its top campaign, "The 99% Spring," which will be a nationwide uprising April 9-15 "to train ourselves in non-violent action and join together in the work of reclaiming our country."

Editorial assistance by fellow IMCer Amy Dalton