Friday, September 30, 2005

What Part of $2.6 Trillion Don't You Understand?

By Rich Miles

Sept. 30, 2005

I’ve been paying close attention to budgets lately – both my personal budget, which has a somewhat larger hole than usual in it due to increases in energy and health care costs (and I’m not even sick), and the federal government budget as well, and I’ve come to an ineluctable conclusion: the state of the educational system in America, especially as it relates to the teaching of math skills, is in far worse shape than any of us ever thought.

How else to explain the fact that so few people seem to see the connection between tax cuts, federal deficits, and pork-barrel spending? How else may we understand people who, often in the same breath, castigate the ‘tax and spend’ Democrats, but beat the drum loudly for the current administration and Congress as they offer bridges to nowhere for Alaska, funds to keep military bases open in their hometowns regardless of their efficacy, and corruption-plagued war and disaster relief efforts?

This is simple arithmetic: if the government spends more than it takes in, it does exactly what we do when we engage in the same behavior: it borrows the difference. Want a new car, but don’t have the cash? That’s what finance companies are for. Want a new war, but don’t have the cash? That apparently is what the Chinese and Japanese and Saudis are for.

But what most of us DON’T do when faced with such choices is – deliberately reduce our income. Such mathematical good sense seems nowhere in evidence in our government today, nor has it done for about 4 ½ years now.

Yet still we – the people who are ultimately paying the bills either now or 10, 20, 30 years down the road – insist on our goodies. We are so gullible that we will vote for anyone who promises to cut taxes, no matter the consequences. We want it all, but we don’t want to pay for it, and when the bill finally comes due – as it inevitably must – we will be very angry, not with the folks who created the debt, but with the folks who finally are forced to raise taxes to pay for the folly of those profligates from the last administration.

And that’s how conventional wisdom is born. The CW in this case is….you guessed it…that the Democrats are the ‘tax and spend’ party.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that the Democrats have always, or even often, been the party of fiscal responsibility – such an assertion would be foolish. But what is becoming increasingly clear is that there is no way the current Republican-controlled White House or Congress are going to do the right thing for the country by cutting expenses and raising, or even un-lowering, taxes they’ve already cut (most of which tax cuts, it remains true, went to benefit those who range from the wealthy to the obscenely wealthy).

But what is even clearer is that, when the Bush administration leaves office in 2009, the country’s finances are going to be in a helluva mess if, as Bush has insisted repeatedly, there will be no tax increases or repeals of tax cuts. And the current state of the Republican Party being what it is, and the nature of the American voter being what it is, the next president and perhaps even the next Congress are going to be Democrats, or at the very least fiscal-conservative Republicans.

So to clean up the mess they’re left with, the Prez and the Congress are going to have to….you guessed it…raise taxes. And the cycle will start all over again – we’ll be mad at the tax-and-spend Democrats (even if, in reality, they’re only taxing because there’s not much left to spend), and in 2012 or 2016, we’ll vote in another Republican who will promise, as Bush did, to cut our taxes, and very likely the entire farce we’re currently living will be replayed.

It’s worked this way for the past 60 years. If a little thing like World War II hadn’t intervened, I suspect our history books might be rife with references to FDR as a tax-and-spend liberal.

But it just isn’t true. If nothing else will spur you, consider this: in the 60 years since the end of World War II, Republicans have been in the White House 33 years and Democrats for 27. The only time in all those years in which there was a significant federal surplus was the last four years of the Clinton administration – Democratic president, Republican-majority Congress. And the campaign promise that got George W. Bush almost elected, that got him close enough to a popular majority that the Supreme Court could then elect him, was the promise, almost immediately carried out, to make that surplus disappear. And he did, with the help of a craven Congress, and look where we are now.

Are we learning any math skills yet?

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Compassion as political tool - the fall of Tom DeLay

by Rich Miles

Whenever we learn of hideous atrocities committed by people, we usually wonder why the simple act of "putting themselves in the victims' position" never occurs to the perpetrators. After all, Hitler could not have ever thought about what it was like to be a Jew on the way to a gas chamber - if he had, surely he could not have caused so many Jews to be killed, right? Or Idi Amin, or Saddam Hussein, or Robert Mugabe, or any of the other world-renowned torturers and killers of thousands or millions. It's called compassion to make this mental comparison, to wonder how bad we would feel if we were in the position in which we place our victims, and it's a simple act of humanity that causes most of us not to do things which hurt others. Every religion or belief system in the history of the world has had an equivalent to what the Christian West calls "The Golden Rule", and it is arguably the single most important ethical and human-interactional rule by which people have lived for millennia.

There has been a lot of talk about compassion in the past few years - the concept of "compassionate conservatism", while pretty much discredited in action, was at least attractive enough to us as an idea to get an incompetent, mean-spirited and corrupt liar elected to the U.S. presidency twice.

But then comes Tom DeLay - a man who, even in his own party, is known, and sadly sometimes admired, for his almost utter lack of compassion. In 21 years in the U.S. Congress, DeLay's entire purpose was the collection and consolidation of power, regardless of the pain caused to others, or the cost to America. Oh sure, he must also have done something of value for his congressional constituents, or they wouldn't have elected him 11 times. But in essence, his whole career in Washington has been about partisanship - not cooperation for the good of all Americans (what a silly idea!), not the creation of value for America, but power for its own sake. And now he is wounded politically, by all accounts his wound is largely self-inflicted, and the wound may, if America is lucky, be eventually fatal.

So if Tom DeLay has had a lot of trouble in his career feeling or expressing compassion, he will continue to have this problem, and he will never understand why, when he finally fell from grace, his opponents were not just relieved to see him (possibly) go, but were in many cases positively gleeful that he's finally got his goolies in such a serious wringer. After all, we all love to see a bad guy, a bully get what he deserves in the end - it was the basis for the success of so many of those cowboy pictures that he and his president seem to love to emulate, that justice would eventually prevail. And DeLay has deserved it for a long, long time. His is the clearest example in living memory of the old adage that "power corrupts, and absolute power (which DeLay had to some extent in his own area of endeavor) corrupts absolutely."

And the best part of this, in my opinion, is that even if his lawyers manage to weasel him out of the charge on some legal technicality, that will be almost as bad for him as a conviction. Or at least, I hope it will be. You never know what they'll do down there in Texas...