This post probably isn’t going to be what you’re expecting. The thing is, someone needs to say it. While the debt ceiling deal has been reached, pulling the U.S. back from the brink of an unprecedented default, the budget issues in this country won’t be getting any better as a result of the legislation that was passed. The big losses posted on Wall Street yesterday (and the preceding week), suggest that the folks playing the market are getting a clearer picture of just what a mess we’re in. The deficit needs to be brought under control, but how?
That’s where politics comes into the mix. The right–especially the extreme right–seems to think that when we spend more than we take in, we simply fix the problem by cutting spending and while we’re at it, cutting taxes, too. The extreme left seems to think just the opposite: keep on spending and just raise revenues (i.e., taxes) until we can pay for it. The moderate position looks to a balanced approach of spending cuts combined with revenue increases. This is the approach that the President suggested in his recent television address to the nation. It’s not what we got.
The debate gets carefully framed through language that resonates with some emotions, while conveniently glossing over other emotions that might evoke a different response from the public. For example, there’s a bit of rhetoric out there that claims that the country needs to cut taxes on the wealthy “job creators.” It sounds good. You can envision a scenario where it makes sense. On top of that, when it’s repeated often enough, without being questioned, people begin to assume that it must be true. Unfortunately, both history and conservative economists agree that it isn’t. When the wealthy get tax breaks, they make like the Steve Miller Band, and “Take the Money and Run.” What they don’t do is create jobs. Here’s a good primer to get you started, and there’s much more online.
Again, I’m not saying we don’t need to look for ways to cut spending, we do. I agree with conservatives on this point. I’m just suggesting that the argument conservatives put forward for cutting taxes isn’t valid. Until we can balance our checkbook, we need to increase certain taxes on the wealthy. Keep in mind that it’s very unlikely that you meet the definition of wealthy for this purpose. Conservatives sell the tax cuts as a way to create jobs (which it doesn’t) and they gain popular support for budget cuts by talking about “entitlements.” This is the issue that really gets under my skin, and this is where I’m taking you on a bit of a detour. Hang with me.
When you hear a politician talk about “out of control spending” and the “need to cut wasteful entitlements,” what image comes to mind? Do you think about welfare? Food stamps? Single mothers with a houseful of children and no job? Lazy people? Illegal immigrants? Be honest with yourself. Do you hear the word “entitlements” and think “No one should be ‘entitled’ to anything in this country. The American way is success through hard work. We need to stop giving handouts to people who don’t pull their own weight. Entitlements discourage people from working. After all, why should they when they can just live off the government? I’m so sick and tired of paying taxes on my hard-earned money so somebody else can get something for nothing.” When you think these sorts of things, what do the “bad” people who mooch off the government look like? Well, unless they look like the sweet lady in this picture, chances are you’re missing the mark.
This is my Granny who passed away last week at the age of 87. She lived a long, full life, and for nearly one-fourth of that life she was a recipient of entitlement spending. In fact, few people in this country receive more benefits than she did. She received Social Security payments every month. She had Medicare coverage. And, because her income was low enough to qualify for it, she had Medicaid coverage, too. Those are the big three entitlement programs. Together, they represent more than 40% of the Federal budget, and millions of Americans rely on them like my Granny did. But my Granny wasn’t lazy. She worked hard all her life, sewing, gardening, and taking care of the home, until her body literally wore out. There are many just like her in that regard. Our picture of entitlement spending is all wrong. We don’t typically think about it, but even millionaires receive Social Security and Medicare when they reach retirement age. I’m guessing that they enjoy those benefits, and wouldn’t support having them cut, even if they don’t depend on them the way my Granny did.
And that’s the point of this post. In memory of my Granny, I’m hoping that whenever you hear a politician from either party speak of “entitlements” that you’ll replace that word with the phrase “Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security,” because that’s what they’re really talking about. I’m also hoping that you’ll reflect on your own prejudices and misconceptions about the beneficiaries of these programs. Feel free to picture my sweet Granny, or your own parents or grandparents, in your mind’s eye, for these are the faces of the victims of excessive cuts in entitlement spending. Don’t be fooled into thinking that we can make things better by cutting spending and revenues. That’s just one step forward and one step back. Likewise, don’t be fooled into thinking that cutting spending or raising revenues alone is sufficient. That’s only half of the battle. Realize instead that we need to cut spending wisely, in ways that minimize harm to people who depend on these important government programs, while also raising revenue wisely, in ways that ask the wealthy to forgo preferential tax treatment and corporate loopholes, while not overburdening lower and middle-class Americans. It really is that simple, and the sooner the American public understands that and holds their elected officials accountable for it, the sooner our nation’s budget deficit will be eliminated.