Republicans, who ran up the deficit while claiming that deficits do not matter, have not been very serious about solving the problem they created. Paul Ryan’s proposal should be called the Banana Republican Budget as this is what it would turn the United States into. The Republican proposal primarily shifts wealth even more to the ultra-wealthy, does far less to reduce the deficit than claimed, and takes Draconian steps, including eliminating Medicare as a meaningful program. Barack Obama’s response lacked detail but was important for making an attempt to reframe the debate.
It is hard to do anything about the deficit is that the people who speak out the most against the deficit (such as those in the Tea Party movement) are totally ignorant about the actual causes of the deficit, blaming Obama rather than Bush, and are the ones who are also the most opposed to ending tax breaks for the ultra-wealthy. It shows the effect of Fox and the right wing noise machine that it was necessary for Obama to explain simple concepts like why we need to keep government functions going for the common good in his budget address:
From our first days as a nation, we have put our faith in free markets and free enterprise as the engine of America’s wealth and prosperity. More than citizens of any other country, we are rugged individualists, a self-reliant people with a healthy skepticism of too much government.
But there’s always been another thread running through our history -– a belief that we’re all connected, and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation. We believe, in the words of our first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, that through government, we should do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves.
And so we’ve built a strong military to keep us secure, and public schools and universities to educate our citizens. We’ve laid down railroads and highways to facilitate travel and commerce. We’ve supported the work of scientists and researchers whose discoveries have saved lives, unleashed repeated technological revolutions, and led to countless new jobs and entire new industries. Each of us has benefitted from these investments, and we’re a more prosperous country as a result.
Part of this American belief that we’re all connected also expresses itself in a conviction that each one of us deserves some basic measure of security and dignity. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, hard times or bad luck, a crippling illness or a layoff may strike any one of us. “There but for the grace of God go I,” we say to ourselves. And so we contribute to programs like Medicare and Social Security, which guarantee us health care and a measure of basic income after a lifetime of hard work; unemployment insurance, which protects us against unexpected job loss; and Medicaid, which provides care for millions of seniors in nursing homes, poor children, those with disabilities. We’re a better country because of these commitments. I’ll go further. We would not be a great country without those commitments.
In past years this has been a great nation, as been able to accomplish great things. Now reckless Republican policies have created the current crisis. George Bush fought two wars off the books while Republicans practiced Voodoo Economics, claiming that tax cuts would increase rather than decrease tax revenue. He threatened to fire the chief Medicare actuary if he testified before Congress about the actual cost of his Medicare Plan, which was primarily designed to transfer money from Medicare to the pharmaceutical and insurance industries. Bush structured the tax cuts so that they would have the greatest impact on the deficit in the later years, attempting to transfer the blame to whoever his successor might be. The stimulus money spent by Obama, which kept the country out of a depression, represents a small amount of the deficit compared to these other factors. Obama pointed out who is really to blame:
But after Democrats and Republicans committed to fiscal discipline during the 1990s, we lost our way in the decade that followed. We increased spending dramatically for two wars and an expensive prescription drug program -– but we didn’t pay for any of this new spending. Instead, we made the problem worse with trillions of dollars in unpaid-for tax cuts -– tax cuts that went to every millionaire and billionaire in the country; tax cuts that will force us to borrow an average of $500 billion every year over the next decade.
To give you an idea of how much damage this caused to our nation’s checkbook, consider this: In the last decade, if we had simply found a way to pay for the tax cuts and the prescription drug benefit, our deficit would currently be at low historical levels in the coming years.
Obama presented a view which is consistent with the values held by most Americans since the days of the founding of this nation, presenting a contrast to the Republican policies of destroying the economy and safety-net for the poor and elderly for the sake of transferring yet more of the nation’s wealth to the ultra-wealthy. He countered the pundits which have called Paul Ryan’s insane budget plan serious and courageous:
This vision is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America. Ronald Reagan’s own budget director said, there’s nothing “serious” or “courageous” about this plan. There’s nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. And I don’t think there’s anything courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill. That’s not a vision of the America I know.
The America I know is generous and compassionate. It’s a land of opportunity and optimism. Yes, we take responsibility for ourselves, but we also take responsibility for each other; for the country we want and the future that we share. We’re a nation that built a railroad across a continent and brought light to communities shrouded in darkness. We sent a generation to college on the GI Bill and we saved millions of seniors from poverty with Social Security and Medicare. We have led the world in scientific research and technological breakthroughs that have transformed millions of lives. That’s who we are. This is the America that I know. We don’t have to choose between a future of spiraling debt and one where we forfeit our investment in our people and our country.
To meet our fiscal challenge, we will need to make reforms. We will all need to make sacrifices. But we do not have to sacrifice the America we believe in. And as long as I’m President, we won’t.
Obama vowed not to allow the destruction of Medicare as proposed by the Republicans, along with preserving Social Security. He proposed a framework for restoring fiscal sanity which is quite different from the GOP proposals, perhaps finally giving the Democrats a message to carry into the next election. Democrats need the courage to counter the Republican philosophy that tax cuts for the wealthy are always good and government action is always bad.
Of course neither party has a monopoly on being right, even if the Republicans have been wrong far more often since being taken over by far right-wing extremists. While health care costs must be reduced, Obama is relying too much on the Medicare Payment Board, which does present a very real risk of having non-elected individuals concentrate too much on cost at the expense of quality. While it does make sense to take Medicare partially out of the political process, the final say on any recommendations should be left to our elected representatives in a democracy. I am also disappointed that, when speaking of reducing health care costs, Obama said nothing about malpractice reform. While the current legal system accounts for a small smaller percentage of overall health care costs than Republicans claim, these remain very real costs which we should recover. Of course Obama did initiate a process rather than provide definitive solutions, and this might be a bargaining chip to be played in the future.