Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Budget basics -- into the "willows"

Hiker waste deep in the willows. Not my pic; from here.

I can feel the resistance in me rising again. I'm about to plunge into another set of what trail guidebooks about the Colorado Rockies call "willows." I once read that, imagined graceful hanging greenery and wondered "what are they talking about?" that I should worry about the effort of getting through them? Turned out to a brush-filled, thicket of a swamp, a nasty, trackless place.

The Prez and Congress have moved into budget season -- having so far left themselves with an incomplete grade on health care reform -- and if I want follow developments, I have to plunge into some budget "willows."

This will be tiresome, but not so much so if I hang onto a few basic facts that are largely unmentioned among the commentariat:

The United States is still a very rich country. Okay, so a billion Chinese with a per capita income of $3300 according to the IMF in 2008 adds up to a lot of money -- and a very big deal. But 330 million Americans with a per capita income of $47000 is also a big deal. These days, the US is simply not so much richer than the rest of world that we were during the second half of the 20th century -- but for all our inequalities, we're still better off in aggregate than any other people in history. We can stop whining and start thinking about how to use that wealth to solve our problems of inequality.

The famous "deficit" -- the label for the truth that the US spends more money than the government has to spend -- arises from two sources:
  • Rich people refuse to contribute to maintaining the common good. Since 1980, that would be Ronald Reagan's election, rich people and their corporate shills have bought the best politicians and legal outcomes money can buy to defend themselves from having to pay taxes. They just won't. They'd rather tear down the nation that enables them to get rich than to pay their share. And they have been getting away with this. Sure, this is stupid, a complete failure of enlightened self-interest. Nobody ever proved that rich people are smart; they are merely very determined people who are willing to act greedy and sociopathic.
  • Empire costs a lot. The United States has two (purpose-devoid) wars dragging on, 1000 or so military bases in other peoples' countries, military contractors up the wazoo, and a military force structure so bloated that it can't seem to get 30000 troops to Afghanistan in 6 months and then needs $1 million for each of them to keep them there for a year. This is the definition of insanity. After World War II, Europe was willing to let the U.S. play international cop while it recovered from being reduced to rubble. The rest of the world just wanted the colonial powers off their backs. The world, though still dangerous, has become a more complicated and for many people in Europe, Asia and even Latin America a somewhat better place. It is both interlinked and multi-polar. The era of United States empire is simply over, though we can blow up the planet 99 times. Managing this decline has to be the budget game. That's where future deficit reduction is possible.
Rising health care costs contribute to the deficit, but they are not the main problem. We just got a dose of this today from Ezra Klein:

"long-term deficits are a function of health-care spending ..."

That is only true if we refuse to look at raising taxes on the wealthy and reducing the costs of empire. I see no reason why older people should be unable to go to the doctor so some general can get wined and dined by a war contractor. Or so some politician can get a cushy lobbying job when he decides to leave office. But that's what we are up against.


Darlene said...

Equality and fair play are not in the scheme of things. Money, greed and power rule.

Barry and Barbara Knister said...

"Since 1980...rich people and their corporate shills have bought the best politicians and legal outcomes money can buy...."

You ain't seen nothin' yet. When the plutocrats stop jumping for joy and resume writing checks, even more of them and much bigger ones, the rest of us will get to see how the latest decision by the conservative majority of the Supreme Court has effectively made an already broken electoral system into a strictly retail transaction.
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