A spending problem in Washington

“We don’t have a revenue problem in Washington, we have a spending problem in Washington.”
Republican Senator John Thune

I am now back in the Midwest, where folks tend to be conservative Republicans. So, most people I know would support South Dakota Senator John Thune’s assertion that “we have a spending problem in Washington.” Although my political perspective is form the far left, I actually tend to agree with Thune. I just wonder, however, why Republicans didn’t say this during the Bush years. From my understanding of history, up until the Reagan years, the United States economy would use deficit spending to dig itself out of economic recessions. During times of prosperity, we would operate under a balanced budget. This is what prompted former Vice President Dick Cheney to say, “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.” The Bush administration used deficit spending to finance the wars.

I agree that we have a spending problem in Washington, but I think we have had a spending problem for a while, and the spending problem is the six or seven hundred billion dollars of annual military spending. We invest hundreds of billions of dollars creating worldwide violence in the name of security, and when this spending finally catches up with us, cutting military spending is still essentially off limits. I have been as tuned in to the budget negotiations as I would have liked, so I’m open to correction, but it seems as though significant cuts to military spending are off the table.

As a religiously oriented person, it is difficult to understand why we invest such massive amounts of money into violence. As Jesus said, “those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” If there is even a small amount of truth to what Jesus says here, then it means that our efforts to gain national security with violence is doomed to rebound upon ourselves. What is interesting to me is that in a Christian nation, this kind of discussion is largely ignored. Even when our financial backs are against the wall, and we are on the verge of defaulting on our debts, we hold on to our military budget with a disturbing sense of desperation. To me, this is the real spending problem in Washington, and it’s the one that is largely being ignored.

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Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

15 thoughts on “A spending problem in Washington”

  1. From this piece by Paul Krugman:

    President Obama has made it clear that he’s willing to sign on to a deficit-reduction deal that consists overwhelmingly of spending cuts, and includes draconian cuts in key social programs, up to and including a rise in the age of Medicare eligibility. These are extraordinary concessions. …the president has offered deals that are far to the right of what the average American voter prefers — in fact, if anything, they’re a bit to the right of what the average Republican voter prefers!

    Yet Republicans are saying no. Indeed, they’re threatening to force a U.S. default, and create an economic crisis, unless they get a completely one-sided deal. And this was entirely predictable.

    First of all, the modern G.O.P. fundamentally does not accept the legitimacy of a Democratic presidency — any Democratic presidency. We saw that under Bill Clinton, and we saw it again as soon as Mr. Obama took office.

    As a result, Republicans are automatically against anything the president wants, even if they have supported similar proposals in the past. Mitt Romney’s health care plan became a tyrannical assault on American freedom when put in place by that man in the White House. And the same logic applies to the proposed debt deals.

    Put it this way: If a Republican president had managed to extract the kind of concessions on Medicare and Social Security that Mr. Obama is offering, it would have been considered a conservative triumph. But when those concessions come attached to minor increases in revenue, and more important, when they come from a Democratic president, the proposals become unacceptable plans to tax the life out of the U.S. economy.


  2. From this piece by Patrick Martin:

    When they hear Barack Obama, John Boehner and other political and media representatives of big business declare that “there is no money” to sustain vital programs on which tens of millions of working people depend for their survival, workers should think back to the financial crisis that erupted less than three years ago. There was no suggestion then that “there is no money” to save the banks from collapse. On the contrary, staggering and essentially unlimited sums—as much as $23.7 trillion in combined cash, loans and guarantees from the Treasury, Federal Reserve and other institutions—were made available to defend the capitalist system and the financial interests of the super-rich.

    …Obama proposed even greater spending cuts than those demanded by the House Republicans, tied to a small increase in taxes on the wealthy. He even proposed to put cuts in Social Security on the table, leading to House Republican complaints that they had been “outflanked” by the White House. Obama clearly welcomes the element of crisis, injected by the August 2 deadline, to create the political atmosphere in which such massive cuts can be implemented.

    In this conflict, the Obama administration represents the spearhead of the US ruling class assault on working people. His proposals for closing a few tax loopholes that benefit corporations and the wealthy were largely regarded by the financial aristocracy as a minor inconvenience that would provide a political cover for the overall budget cutting. The measures were supposedly a demonstration of “shared sacrifice,” as though millionaires paying slightly more for a corporate jet could be equated with an elderly couple compelled to choose between paying rent and paying medical bills, or a student forced to drop out of college for lack of a Pell Grant. Moreover, the multimillionaires have been assured that any small charges on their wealth incorporated into an eventual deficit-reduction package will be more than recouped in tax reform proposals that will slash overall tax rates on corporations and high-income households…

    The course of the Obama administration completely explodes the claims of its liberal apologists, from the New York Times to the Nation magazine and groups like the International Socialist Organization, who portrayed Obama as a “progressive” political figure whose election would inaugurate a new era of social reform in America. Instead, Obama has escalated the war in Afghanistan, launched new military onslaughts in Libya, Yemen and Somalia, continued the Bush administration’s attacks on democratic rights, and now seeks to outdo the Republicans in imposing austerity policies at home.


  3. …In embracing deficit reduction as its battle cry, the Obama administration has revealed its true class character. It is a government of, by and for the financial aristocracy—as demonstrated in the enormous influx of campaign cash for Obama’s reelection, more than double that of all the Republicans combined.


  4. A point well made, John, via the commentary of both a mainstream liberal and a socialist.

    Krugman and other liberals see Obama as a negotiator: he’s willing to be a pragmatist in order to move things along in Washington. Those farther to the left of the liberal/progressive Democrat crowd see Obama as little different than his predecessor in that he has implemented many of the same policies.

    But what about those to the right??? People to the right of the center see Obama as a raving socialist; some main stream conservative Republicans even see Obama as intentionally out to ruin the nation. That President Obama is a socialist through and through is the given for most anyone I’ve heard or talked with who is anywhere to the right of center, even those who are not necessarily Ditto Heads. Anyone just to the right of center (or farther to the right) believe that if Obama just had his chance, could get his way, the U.S. would revert to an authoritarian socialistic state little different than the former U.S.S.R.

    I think most tend to interpret the Presidents through their preexisting political lenses.

    What are my thoughts on the President? I think that if he could have his way, he would definitely move the country to the left, but not too far left; he’s not a socialist. He believes in the capitalistic system in more or less its current form, he believes in using military force and violence to solve world problems, but I think he also sees the obvious: that the system leaves many people behind. I think that if he could have his way, he would create social safety nets for people; but that’s not going to happen anytime soon, if ever. He’s worked with a conservative congress all four years, and he has to deal with a conservative Republican populace that believe as a matter of fact some things that seem to me to be completely absurd (the birther controversy, Obama is a socialis/communist, etc.).


  5. “I think most tend to interpret the Presidents through their preexisting political lenses.”

    Yes but isn’t there such a thing as truth? Obama is a socialist — it’s just a marketing slogan. I find it more useful to look at specific policy issues, to outline what a socialist position on that issue might look like, then to evaluate what Obama’s position is on that issue. I no longer try to read his intentions — “if he could have his way,” as you characterize it. I, along with a lot of others I know of, voted for him by trying to read his intentions. I believed that he was positioning himself as a centrist in order to get elected, and that once elected he would lead with his left so to speak. He ran on the promise of “change,” and arguably the majority in the country was sick of Bush and the Republican mainstream that had been on duty when the housing collapse happened. He swept into office along with substantial Democratic majorities in both the Senate and the House. Still Obama supported the wars, the financial industry bailouts, the extension of Bush’s tax cuts for the rich, and so on.

    “he would create social safety nets for people; but that’s not going to happen anytime soon, if ever.”

    Some safety nets — Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security — have been in place for a generation or more, yet Obama seems more intent on dismantling them than on preserving them. Both of the articles I linked contend, I think correctly, that Obama’s proactive proposals to cut funding and benefits for Medicare make his position indistinguishable from the mainstream Republican party wonks. Even mainstream Republican voters don’t want Medicare dismantled. but Obama is pushing the cuts anyway. Medicare and Social Security are funded by payroll taxes, not income taxes. Medicare is fully funded for years into the future and would be solvent if he restored the cuts in payroll taxes that he pushed through during last year’s budget “compromises.” Why cut Medicare? Maybe I can be accused of reading intentions here, but it’s in keeping with a fully privatized healthcare system to undermine Medicare financially. Obama seemed more than eager to take “the public option” off the table in getting his healthcare scheme through Congress. As Krugman said, Obama’s health plan, which requires people to buy private health insurance, was already Romney’s Republican plan.


    1. Ha ha. Yeah. Well, yes. I do think there is a process of reasoning and that we ought to make some attempt at objectivity. It’s just that there probably aren’t very many who would say, “You know, my view point on Obama is squeezed through an ideological filter.” Most everyone thinks they have objective evidence on their side, and this includes people like Rush Limbaugh (and the millions who think like him) who seem to me to be purely driven by ideology and interpret all of the facts accordingly.

      I also want to say that I sympathize with what you are saying about looking at Obama’s record and realizing that from a performance and policy perspective, he differs little from Bush or other Republicans. I get that, and I would say that he does not represent my political perspective; but I did blog a month or two back on Walter Rodgers’ article on Obama’s leadership. He lists the following things that commend the President’s policies:

      – He stabilized the worst economy since the Great Depression
      – His administration kept thousands of over-extended Americans from losing their homes by laboring mightily to forestall foreclosures.
      – In spite of ferocious opposition, he passed long-overdue reforms of our health-care system.
      – He signed into law a bod package of regulations to boost consumer protection and restrain Wall Street’s greed.
      – He negotiated a historic nuclear-arms reduction treaty with Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev.

      I would also add that the original plan for health-care reform included a public option that would have given health-care to all people. That was killed by an uproar from the right.

      I just wonder how much we on the left can expect from President Obama or any left-of-center politician in these times. There are many people on the right who are militantly opposed to changes in the status quo, who view leftist politics as dangerous or severely ignorant, and who have a voting block to back it up. I find myself in the Howard Zinn camp. I think that relying on our political system has historically not delivered significant changes to the inequality in our nation. The system, time and time again, has protected the class system and worked to benefit the wealthy, doing virtually nothing (by comparison) for the poor. I not yet lost complete hope in the political system; but I tend to think that we need to find other ways. In the meantime, when I vote, I vote for who I think is the lesser of two evils. Obama may be more or less a status quo politician, but I’d rather have him than Bush or McCain or Sarah Palin.


  6. I think it’s possible to evaluate policy options on ideological grounds while withholding judgment about which options and ideologies are best. In your post you specifically singled out military spending as a federal budget-buster. Most socialists and libertarians alike would regard these foreign military adventures as bad policy, yet both Republicans and Democrats support the wars. Likewise with the bank bailouts: socialists might call for nationalizing the banks, while libertarians might say to let them fail, but neither would have supported the massively expensive “bank safety net” that Bush and Obama used to prop up the financial industry. Or healthcare: socialists would support single payer; libertarians would say let people decide whether to buy insurance; neither would have supported the Romney-Obama plan requiring people by law to buy insurance. Is this sort of strong public support for financial interests, advocated by Republicans and by Democrats, the true middle ground between libertarian and socialist? I doubt it.


  7. So I just read about the new “Gang of Six” budget proposal, which Obama is touting now. In this plan the income tax rate for the highest income bracket actually GOES DOWN, from 35% to 29%.


      1. Whether frustrating or encouraging, Obama’s endorsement of this proposal to lower taxes on the rich is hard to reconcile with his being a socialist, or even a traditional progressive Democrat.


  8. Yes, I agree.

    What is interesting, too, is that lower taxes on the rich receives full-hearted support from many in the non-rich middle class. After jumping through the loopholes, the rich don’t end up actually paying a 35% rate. Many conservatives I know will acknowledge this, but they still give support to the philosophy that lower taxes stimulates economic growth.


  9. Yes, flattening the income tax rates, or even eliminating income tax altogether, is a policy consistent with libertarian capitalist ideology. I’ve seen empirical evidence showing that in the USA these days 50% of consumer spending comes from the wealthiest 10% of the population. One might believe that these luxury purchases will “trickle down” to broader economic growth via companies hiring more workers to meet the rich people’s demand for goods and services. That position isn’t supported empirically: for the past 3 years the economy has grown and corporate profits have surged, but unemployment continues to go up and wages go down. On a related note, did you see that the Gang of Six budget plan also calls for lowering corporate income tax rates?


  10. From today’s news:

    according to a White House official, Mr. Obama had agreed over the coming decade to cut $250 billion from Medicare spending and $310 billion from other domestic entitlement programs, like farm subsidies and education programs. And Mr. Obama was willing to change the formula for Social Security cost-of living adjustments, which many economists say would more accurately reflect inflation, for savings of about $125 billion more. All of Mr. Obama’s concessions on the benefit programs were contingent, however, on Mr. Boehner and Republicans agreeing to higher taxes for wealthy individuals and corporations.

    Is it true, or has Obama “moved the goal posts” in the middle of negotiations, as Republican leaders allege? At least this spin from the White House offers some reassurance to Obama’s core constituency


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