Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The apocalyptic pain of starving the beast

Guest post by Nicholas Wilbur 

Nicholas Wilbur is an award-winning reporter and opinion columnist turned political junkie and critic. He is the founder of the blog Muddy Politics and lives in New Mexico.

(Ed. note: This is Nicholas's fifth guest post for us. You can find his first two, both on the Obama-GOP tax deal, here and here. You can find his third, on the potential for revolution, here, and his fourth, on the state of American democracy, here. -- MJWS)


When you starve the beast, the last think you expect is "apocalyptic pain," especially when the former strategy and the latter warning come from the same political party.

After two years of vigorously opposing and consistently filibustering any Democratic-proposed initiatives that were not paid for – and even many that were – Republicans executed a flawless about-face this month by then lobbying the White House to add more than $675 billion to the national deficit with an extension of tax cuts for all Americans.

"The worst time in the world to raise taxes on anybody is during a recession," Republican Sen. Tom Coburn said in the lead-up to the tax-cut debate.

After President Obama and the majority of Democrats in Congress capitulated to GOP demands and approved the tax cuts for another two years, Coburn came out spewing the usual Republican fire-and-brimstone venom about government spending.

According to The Hill, Coburn is now on a "crusade against spending." He's calling for "sacrifice," warning of "punishment" for runaway spending, and prophesying "destruction" of the middle class if Washington doesn't get its house in order.

If it seems like a gold metal winner in the Hypocrite Olympics, it is.

(Perhaps it's time for the GOP to update its traditional title to reflect its modern political stances – something like Grand Old Hypocritical Party would do just fine.)

But it's also good politics. And it doesn't take a modern political science expert to see how.

George Lakoff’s 2004 description of the Republican Party's tax-cut pitch to America still applies to the extension Obama just signed into law.

The Republican Party holds to the theory that "social programs are immoral because they make people dependent," Lakoff writes. After hearing Republicans argue throughout the year against providing unemployment benefits to the millions of American who still cannot find work, it has become acceptable to describe these people not only as dependent but also lazy, serially breeding animals, drug addicts, hobos and, in general, taxpayer leeches who ride on the backs of the ever-dwindling population of hard-working and patriotic Americans.

Lakoff continues: "[I]f you believe that social programs are immoral, how do you stop these immoral people? It is quite simple. What you have to do is reward the good people – the ones whose prosperity reveals their discipline and hence their capacity for morality – with a tax cut, and make it big enough so that there is not enough money left over for social programs. By this logic, the deficit is a good thing. As Grover Norquist says, it 'starves the beast.'"

And that is exactly what Republicans have accomplished with the latest, mostly bipartisan effort to extend tax cuts for all Americans. 

By "starving the beast" of $675 billion worth in tax cuts, and another $183 billion in additional spending measures, Republicans are now squawking that the sky is falling. And Coburn is not alone in his argument that if something isn't done – and soon – the country as a whole will feel the "apocalyptic pain" of this administration's spending spree, economic emergency or not. 

For an added bit of irony, it's worth noting that Republicans spent the majority of the 2010 campaign season railing against Obama and Democrats for adding to the deficit, stretching the government too thin, and jeopardizing the fiscal safety of the nation by shoving a $787 billion stimulus bill down the throats of the American people, and then, after the election, coming out in near unanimous support for a second, even more costly stimulus bill totaling $858 billion.

Because of these measures, "wasteful spending" is now on the chopping block – which sounds like a good thing, a necessary thing, a vital thing if America is going to avoid a financial apocalypse. But wasteful spending, according to the GOP, is spending on social programs. And that debate is fast approaching.

To avoid defaulting on the national debt, Congress will begin debating in early 2011 whether or not to increase the national debt ceiling above the current $14.2-trillion limit.

The new House majority leader, John Boehner, has signaled that increasing the debt ceiling is necessary, even if it is not desirable. Not all Republicans are on board, but with Republicans taking control of the lower branch of Congress come January, and with a good many of them representing the anti-government, "Don't Tread on Me" philosophy of the Tea Party movement, spending cuts are guaranteed no matter what decision is made with regard to the debt ceiling.

If the Republican Party's "Pledge to America" is any indication of where spending allegiances lie, seniors, veterans, and troops will not be on the chopping block.

That may come as a relief to some, but it signals its own Armageddon to others. By ignoring cuts to Medicare, Social Security, and defense spending, only one-third of the federal budget is then open to cuts. One could bet with almost certain odds that social programs will be first to slide under the guillotine.

That means early child education, crime and violence prevention and resources, substance abuse treatment, mental health therapy, youth development, housing subsidies, after-school programming, college tuition assistance and grants... the list goes on, and on, and on – and it affects millions of people.

It's unlikely that Sen. Coburn will revise his statement about tax cuts and add that, "The worst time in the world to cut social programs on anybody is during a recession."

That said, it's the argument Democrats are going to have to take. Spending cuts are necessary, but their effects are mostly directed toward those who are already on the brink of poverty. More importantly, at least as far as politics is concerned, spending cuts result in staff reductions, which result in further unemployment.

It's not a battle any individual should look forward to fighting, because no matter who wins the debate, Coburn's forecast of "apocalyptic pain" is inevitable.

Such is the nature of starving the beast. When all of the money runs out, it's those without who suffer the most. A politically and morally divided Congress must now decide where to direct the apocalyptic storm.

If it weren't for the sluggish economy, one might feel it appropriate to give these lawmakers a raise for the life-or-death consequences their decisions will reap on America.

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