Budgeting for mistrust

By Zachary Karabell
March 13, 2013

Paul Ryan unveiled the House Republican budget this week with an ominous yet familiar warning: “America’s national debt is over $16 trillion.” Having stated the problem, he then offered a solution, one which differed only marginally from what he’s offered the past two years. Namely: restrain government healthcare spending on Medicare and Medicaid, reform the individual tax code, close loopholes, lower corporate taxes, and promote natural gas and energy independence. The goal? A balanced budget by 2023 that will ensure “the well-being of all Americans…and reignite the American dream.”

The strongest part of Ryan’s unveiling is not the specifics, which may not be very strong at all, but the unimpeachable critique of the White House and congressional Democrats for not offering their own blueprint and budget for the future. Some of that is semantics; both the president and congressional Democrats have offered various rough outlines of their long-term budget, and now Senate Democrats offered their counterproposal. But until late they had operated more in the rough-and-tumble of dysfunctional Washington negotiations rather than with explicit, official and formal (and long) outlines of exactly what will be spent and how. Yes, each year the White House, through the Office of Management and Budget, does assess and express views about present spending. That is not the same as an explicit pathway for the future, which Ryan has indeed offered.

Such offerings are vital. You may, as I do, disagree with key elements of what Ryan and the Republicans are proposing. You may, as I do, object to the fixation on the size of the current debt without any consideration of why that debt was incurred and how much it currently costs to service it, given historically low interest rates. But Republicans are offering a set of answers, and Ryan for one is asking for those to be addressed so the process of debating and, yes, compromising can begin. No, the president is not required to offer a detailed budget; the power of the purse lies with Congress, not the White House. But a detailed vision, especially one that contrasts with the Republican one, would be welcome and productive.

Instead, what we get is mutual mistrust and bile. Assuming the worst of those you disagree with is in vogue these days, at least in politics. It’s a bipartisan sport. Just as Ryan was claiming to welcome ideas from the president and Democrats, House Speaker John Boehner made the following claim on his website: “The president [is] AWOL and unserious about eliminating the deficit.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid shot back that Ryan’s budget proposal “is anything but balanced, anything but fair.” The fund-raising machines of both parties jumped on these ideas. The Democratic House Majority PAC issued an email blast saying Ryan’s budget ideas were recycled (which is true) and that if his plans ever came close to becoming law they would gut middle-class safety nets. At the same time, “The wealthy, Big Oil and companies that ship jobs overseas? They’re sittin’ pretty.”

American politics, let alone any country’s politics, have never been characterized by gentility. People of strong disagreements rarely engage in heated and passionate debate that stays on point, let alone debate that begins and ends with the presumption that everyone engaged is committed to the best interests of the collective. In that sense, today’s political and economic discourse is no more or no less ad hominen, immature and demagogic than at multiple points in the past.

Still, going from adamant disagreement to disdainful dismissal requires a leap. It requires the belief that those with whom you strongly disagree are not making their own good-faith effort to solve collective challenges, but instead are attempting to “get theirs” at the expense of the rest.

That can take the form of insinuating that Ryan and the Republican Party are engaged in a relentless and purposeful campaign to gut the middle class and reward rich cronies. The Democratic Congressional Committee sent an email blast in response to Ryan saying he had “announced yet another plan to destroy Medicare just so Republicans can give massive tax breaks to the ultra-wealthy.” It can take the form of accusing Barack Obama (or other Democrats) of seeking government control and believing in socialism as a goal unto itself. If you search for “Obama” and “socialism” on Google, you’ll see thousands of hits from the fringe, yes, but they’re also from the Tea Party (which many consider fringe but still has dozens of members in the House caucus) and, of course, Fox News.

It may be that some individuals are indeed as nefarious as imagined. There may be a few people who do indeed crave government control, or wish to enrich the oil industry just ’cause, or want to gut the middle class. But have they all gathered in one political party? Did all people of these inclinations decide to enter politics, thereby driving away countless others who believe in public service? The Tea Party may be extreme in its views about the dangers of debt and the perils of compromise, but is it to a person dedicated to harming the middle class? And if so, why? Because some oil companies paid them?

We should push these casual accusations to the logical end. For instance, who ultimately benefits from gutting safety nets? Do “the ultra-wealthy” benefit from an impoverished middle class? No, nor would the Tea Party and its adherents. So is it true that a considerable bloc of politicians actually aspire to “destroy Medicare” in order to give tax breaks to the wealthy? Is it true that Democrats desire government control for its own sake? Far too often, we take these accusations at face value.

Ryan has offered a vision. He is critical of alternate visions. He rightly calls on others to counter what he has proposed, and in the coming weeks, it’s likely they will do just that. The formula that has the right amount of debt, the right amount of stimulus, and the right way to structure needed safety nets is hardly clear to anyone, and there is room for debate and genuine disagreement about how to best structure our public sector to help generate healthcare, growth and a degree of economic stability in the years ahead.

Assuming there is only one set of views that correspond to a desire for a better future assumes there is only one truth. That may work for the cardinals assembling in the Vatican to elect a new pope. But a representative democracy? We can debate it, but I’m dubious.

PHOTO: House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) holds a news conference to unveil the House Republicans’ FY2014 budget resolution in Washington March 12, 2013. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

8 comments

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You state “Ryan has offered a vision. He is critical of alternate visions. He rightly calls on others to counter what he has proposed, and in the coming weeks,”

Really?

Let me copy over my exchange of comments from another Reuters article today that has a great deal of bearing on this discussion.

My comments are offered to counter Ryan’s “visions” — actually, I prefer to think of them as “hallucinations” — and are in response to a person who apparently believes in the Republican “cause”, which I believe requires some explanation and clarification to get through the bullshit in order to expose the frightening “reality” of what these folks are proposing to do to us.

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“We treat death as if it were optional. People talk about the right to die, as if we have the right to refuse to die. Once we stop treating death as an enemy and recognize it as an inevitability, we can save massive resources. We must look rationally at the phenomenal amount of resources we spend on the last few weeks of peoples’ lives to only prolong suffering. You can’t afford to do everything to everybody,” — Richard Lamm
Posted by COindependent

@ COindependent –

Let me “flesh out” your bare bones comment from an extremist. Perhaps you should have been more candid as to why you included this particular comment from this particular individual.

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In 1984, (Richard Lamm’s) outspoken statements in support of physician-assisted suicide generated some controversy, specifically over his use of the phrase “we have a duty to die.”

Lamm later explained that he “was essentially raising a general statement about the human condition, not beating up on the elderly,” and that the exact phrasing in the speech was “We’ve got a duty to die and get out of the way with all of our machines and artificial hearts and everything else like that and let the other society, our kids, build a reasonable life.” [9]

His dire predictions for the future of social security and health care (“duty to die”) earned him the nickname “Governor Gloom”.

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This is a “slippery slope” indeed, since many others in the past have argued for the same policy of Social Darwinism — i.e. survival of the fittest, which is the underlying credo of the wealthy class, that others who are not wealthy should get out of their way by dying, all for the good of “our” (meaning ONLY those of the wealthy class are deemed “worthy”) children, of course — but what they want is exactly the same thing many authoritarian governments have experimented with in the past, mostly with horrific results.

“Examples are the Chinese “Great Leap Forward” and “Cultural Revolution” program and the Khmer Rouge’s plan of deurbanization of Cambodia.”

“Social theorists of the Frankfurt School in Weimar Germany like Theodor Adorno had also observed the new phenomenon of mass culture and commented on its new manipulative power, when the rise of the Nazis drove them out of the country around 1930 (many of them became connected with the Institute for Social Research in the United States).”

“The Nazis themselves were no strangers to the idea of influencing political attitudes and re-defining personal relationships. The Nazi propaganda machine under Joseph Goebbels was a synchronized, sophisticated and effective tool for creating public opinion.”

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THIS is the logical result of what you (and most of the wealthy class in the US) are arguing for, but are not openly admitting with their attacks on the “entitlement” programs.

I think a better word for what you and the wealthy class want than “social engineering” is “genocide”.

You should be aware that there may be some significant unintended consequences should the wealthy class attempt to return to their former days of glory at our expense.

I assume my comments above are well-known in terms of China under Mao, as well as the policies under Hitler’s Germany, so that I need not elaborate.

But for those history-deficient people like you, here is the details of my reference to the Khmer Rouge:

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The Khmer Rouge was the name given to the followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea in Cambodia.

It was formed in 1968 as an offshoot of the Vietnam People’s Army from North Vietnam.

It was the ruling party in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, led by Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Son Sen, and Khieu Samphan.

Democratic Kampuchea was the name of the state as controlled by the government of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979.

This organization is remembered primarily for the genocide which was the result of its policy of social engineering.[1]

Its attempts at agricultural reform led to widespread famine, while its insistence on absolute self-sufficiency, even in the supply of medicine, led to the deaths of thousands from treatable diseases such as malaria.

Arbitrary executions and torture carried out by its cadres against perceived subversive elements, or during purges of its own ranks between 1975 and 1978, are considered to have constituted genocide.[2]

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The question is rather straightforward for anyone who understands what is really going on in this country:

Do we want to allow the US wealthy class to practice genocide as a means of becoming even richer than they are now, or do the rest of the American people have just as much of a right to life as they do?

As questions in life go, that is about as simple as they come — be careful how you answer it!
Posted by PseudoTurtle

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive

The other article I refer to above is “The fiscal crisis nears — or not”.

http://blogs.reuters.com/judgement-call/ 2013/03/12/the-fiscal-crisis-nears-or-no t/

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive

What Ryan and his ilk ignore is that in an era of “optional” wars fought against people who dislike us (or them) rather than people who have overtly attacked us, the real method of “pay as you go” is what is called for. Why should debts run up to fight useless and fruitless wars fought for silly, non-national purposes be honored while debts to real US citizens who were involuntarily charged for Government “Insurance” (also known as FICA taxes) be “negotiable” or “optional”? There is no reason. Abrogating either totally destroys the value of “full faith and credit” guarantees. Simply because the public has no power to punish, despite our purported “election” system, while the domestic rich and powerful foreigners do is hardly an “honorable” basis for distinguishing the two. Betraying your own people is not a function of responsible Government.

The entire business is one of fraud, not honest Government. These people are given far to much credit for not being the thieves that they are.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

Here, from today’s Reuters article entitled “Obama, Ryan express doubts over deficit-reduction pact”.

“OPPOSING VISIONS

In opening remarks at his committee’s work session, Ryan stressed the urgency in getting control of a national debt that is rising rapidly and now stands at $16.7 trillion. “The debt will weigh down our country and our economy like an anchor,” he said.

Meanwhile, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray was set to begin debating her Democratic counterpart to the Ryan budget. Republicans already have mocked it as little more than a tax-heavy, spending-heavy plan that ignores the real U.S. fiscal problem: rapidly growing “entitlement” programs in an aging population.

Those programs include Medicare for the elderly and disabled, Medicaid for the poor, and Social Security payments to retirees.”

http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/03/1 3/us-usa-fiscal-idUSBRE92B0ZE20130313

You CANNOT negotiate in good faith with these people, because they are attempting to destroy our nation just so they can get richer than they already are. This means destroying what little economic safety net we have — in truth, the worst of ANY OECD country — so that we will lose everything to these traitors to this nation.

HELLO!

What’s wrong with you people?

Is there anyone out there who understands what these people want to do to this country?

Where is the outrage?

Where are the demonstrations?

Has the US school system been dumbed-down so far that you do not understand what is happening?

Do you think this is a rehearsal for the real thing?

Is there ANYTHING that ANYONE can say that will get to you people that would force you to act to stop this?

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive

The increasing reality is that this country functions little different under what passes for Democratic or Republican “leadership”. Both major parties know the status quo offers them unlimited reelection as long as they like and ample enemies to blame for the lack of meaningful progress in identifying and resolving America’s increasing problems.

Neither party has the slightest intention in shrinking our federal government or it’s malignant bureaucracies. Neither party has any intention of progressive “town hall” meetings to plumb and implement the “will of the people” because such would inevitably supplant the present “will of the politicians and lobbyists” and their present influence. Neither party offers voters choices other than “bad” and “worse”.

If anyone has any ideas as to how to change this, I’m all ears.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

[We should push these casual accusations to the logical end. For instance, who ultimately benefits from gutting safety nets? Do “the ultra-wealthy” benefit from an impoverished middle class? No, nor would the Tea Party and its adherents.]

The problem is the Tea Party has been manipulated by the money interests, who want to defuse any threat to their primacy, and if crippling government will do that, so much the better. Wall Street nearly brought down the US economy in 2008, and how did they suffer? Massive bails outs, and to big to fail mentality. How many have even been criminally charged? Now they want to gut Dodd-Frank so they have no accountability.

What else explains Tea Party members with signs demanding government keep their hands off their Medicare?

The Ryan budget does not touch Pentagon spending. That in itself is enough to show their priorities.

[But have they all gathered in one political party? Did all people of these inclinations decide to enter politics, thereby driving away countless others who believe in public service?]

Well, the GOP occupies a very small tent……

Posted by pavoter1946 | Report as abusive

“For instance, who ultimately benefits from gutting safety nets? Do “the ultra-wealthy” benefit from an impoverished middle class? No, nor would the Tea Party and its adherents. So is it true that a considerable bloc of politicians actually aspire to “destroy Medicare” in order to give tax breaks to the wealthy?” You presume their interest is in the eventual outcome, not the near term personal benefits they recieve as members of congress. Their individual wealth expands because of the access they have to inside information. Their more like CEOs, in that they worry about the short term rather than the future and the eventual outcome. The results of their work may benefit no one in the long run, but they are individually stacking up the bucks right now for themselves.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

When the GOP presents an economic plan that makes sense and isn’t so pathetically lopsided toward military and corporate interests, that isn’t gunning for our parents, grandparents and children, (you know, those “takers” and “deadbeats”) I’ll jump all over it and sing its praises. Until then, they can kiss my…

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive