The Budget Debate: A Terrible Divide?

Prez O is getting ready to unveil the 2012 fiscal year budget next week, and many Inside the Beltway and out are already in the queue, waiting to see who wins and who loses as the administration speaks with dollars not words.

Clearly as a nation we are going to face some tough spending choices, ranging from defense and foreign aid to social programs, with Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security the big fish in that skillet. One word from a senior citizen on a fixed income (me): gulp.

Anyway, without knowing specifics of the budget priorities and proposed spending cuts or increases, I’ll make only one prediction: we’ll have a shit storm next week that engulfs Congress, the blogosphere and the land of the TV Talking Heads.

Here’s Jacob Lew, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, framing the upcoming debate in a NYT op-ed, “The Easy Cuts Are Behind Us“:

We cannot win the future, expand the economy and spur job creation if we are saddled with increasingly growing deficits. That is why the president’s budget is a comprehensive and responsible plan that will put us on a path toward fiscal sustainability in the next few years — a down payment toward tackling our challenges in the long term.

This starts with doing what families and businesses have been doing during this downturn: tightening our belts. In the budget, the president will call for a five-year freeze on discretionary spending other than for national security. This will reduce the deficit by more than $400 billion over the next decade and bring this category of spending to the lowest share of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was president.

Make no mistake: this will not be easy. It will require tough choices since every decision to invest in one program will necessitate a cut somewhere else. In each of the past two years, the administration has put forward about $20 billion in savings from ending some programs and reducing funds for others. This entailed finding programs that were duplicative, outdated and ineffective. But to achieve the deeper cuts needed to support this spending freeze, we have had to look beyond the obvious and cut spending for purposes we support. We had to choose programs that, absent the fiscal situation, we would not cut.

OK. Tough — and politically unpopular — choices ahead. And lawmakers and policy wonks will be doing this in an environment where many Americans are greatly concerned about the future of this country — if not for themselves, then for their children and grandchildren.

Here’s Bob Herbert opining in the New York Times, “A Terrible Divide“:

The Ronald Reagan crowd loved to talk about morning in America. For millions of individuals and families, perhaps the majority, it’s more like twilight — with nighttime coming on fast.

Look out the window. More and more Americans are being left behind in an economy that is being divided ever more starkly between the haves and the have-nots. Not only are millions of people jobless and millions more underemployed, but more and more of the so-called fringe benefits and public services that help make life livable, or even bearable, in a modern society are being put to the torch.


The U.S. cannot cut its way out of this crisis. Instead of trying to figure out how to keep 4-year-olds out of pre-kindergarten classes, or how to withhold life-saving treatments from Medicaid recipients, or how to cheat the elderly out of their Social Security, the nation’s leaders should be trying seriously to figure out what to do about the future of the American work force.

Enormous numbers of workers are in grave danger of being left behind permanently. Businesses have figured out how to prosper without putting the unemployed back to work in jobs that pay well and offer decent benefits.

Corporate profits and the stock markets are way up. Businesses are sitting atop mountains of cash. Put people back to work? Forget about it. Has anyone bothered to notice that much of those profits are the result of aggressive payroll-cutting — companies making do with fewer, less well-paid and harder-working employees?

For American corporations, the action is increasingly elsewhere. Their interests are not the same as those of workers, or the country as a whole. As Harold Meyerson put it in The American Prospect: “Our corporations don’t need us anymore. Half their revenues come from abroad. Their products, increasingly, come from abroad as well.”

American workers are in a world of hurt. Anyone who thinks that politicians can improve this sorry state of affairs by hacking away at Social Security, Medicare and the public schools are great candidates for involuntary commitment.

Herbert does an effective job of looking at not just the terrible divide in this country — but the one that will be on display in Congress and elsewhere next week as we look at how much we are willing — able? — to spend and where the money and resources will go.

Just sayin’.

New ideas on a grand scale are needed. The United States can’t thrive with so many of its citizens condemned to shrunken standards of living because they can’t find adequate employment. Long-term joblessness is a recipe for societal destabilization. It should not be tolerated in a country with as much wealth as the United States. It’s destructive, and it’s wrong.


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