To the Bone


In Feburary, the Center for American Progress, an influential liberal think tank, posted a drab two-column chart on its Web site, pairing programs under the knife in the House Republicans’ budget proposal with tax cuts of similar size. At first glance, the chart looks like something only a policy wonk could love: dull colors, a litany of budget statistics, cost projections for tax policy, acronyms of obscure federal programs. Are you yawning yet?

Don’t. The chart tells a scandalous story about the values that underlie the GOP proposal. Look closer, and you’ll notice something both ironic and telling: low-income housing programs are in for an $8.9 billion cut—the same amount it will cost over the next ten years to allow mortgage interest deductions for vacation homes.

Budget proposals are not just the domain of accountants and technocrats. They embody values: what leaders believe should be cut or preserved; which functions they see as essential; which programs deserve scarce resources. At its core, the budget debate unfolding in Washington is a clash of values. Since the 2010 midterms, Republicans have made their priorities clear. During last November’s debate over extending the Bush tax cuts, then-Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) advocated “extending all of the current tax rates and making them permanent”—including the cuts on income over $250,000, which affect only the wealthiest 2 percent of American households. (The Congressional Budget Office estimates that extending the tax cuts would cost $700 billion over the next ten years.) Just three months later, in February, Boehner (now the House speaker) was asked about cuts to social programs. His response: “Everything is on the table. We’re broke. Let’s be honest with ourselves.”

Call it the two-step spending dance: a budget-busting handout to the wealthy and powerful, followed by pious calls for cuts in programs benefiting the poor and powerless—because, after all, there’s a budget crisis.

To be fair, the Democrats are not without blame in this mess. Senator Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), for example, delivered a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation in September, publicly siding with congressional Republicans on the tax cuts. But more often, Democrats have failed to mount strong opposition to Republicans on taxes. Haplessness and acquiescence on the left are met with passionate intensity on the right.

It’s not clear how much more of this passionate intensity the budget can take. Democrats emphasized the $700 billion cost of Republican intransigence on the Bush tax cuts, but Republicans nonetheless held firm, and Democrats eventually agreed to a two-year extension of the high-income rates, costing $81.5 billion. That’s much less than $700 billion—but then, there’s no guarantee the tax cuts will actually expire in two years. To believe they will requires no small amount of optimism. The current extension places the next tax debate in the middle of the 2012 presidential campaign. If Democrats lacked the votes (or the spine) to stand firm in 2010, there’s no compelling reason to think they will do so in 2012. Former Bush administration officials know this, which is why Bush’s one-time communications director, Dan Bartlett, gloated about the Democrats’ deal to the Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz: “We knew that, politically, once you get it into law, it becomes almost impossible to remove it.... The fact that we were able to lay the trap does feel pretty good, to tell you the truth.”

This reveals a lot about the sincerity of the Republicans’ newfound fiscal piety. But more important, it reveals their understanding of freedom and citizenship. The Right tends to see the value of citizenship as freedom, defined exclusively in negative terms: America’s greatness comes from the government staying out of our lives. Sarah Palin regularly makes statements to this effect: “American greatness lies in the courage and hard work of individual innovators and entrepreneurs.... By and large, government should get out of the way.” Newt Gingrich’s latest book likewise declares that “secular socialists believe the only reliable institution is a bureaucratic, centralized, supremely powerful government,” and warns that if the Left stays in power, “Powerful politicians will impose their will on an exhausted, submissive citizenry, who will look to government bureaucrats for guidance and permission to succeed in life.”

This worldview helps explain the Republican economic agenda. Because Republicans see government action as inherently inimical to freedom, they can easily countenance massive cuts to social programs: after all, such cuts ensure fiscal prudence while also checking the creeping expansion of the “nanny state.” Extreme rhetoric aside, then, the statements of Palin and Gingrich present a clear ideology. But that ideology captures just one part of what freedom means in a democratic society. Yes, our freedom is valuable because it protects us from undue interference by the state, but equally important is the freedom to participate meaningfully in public life. Isn’t that the essence of self-government? And while the United States has a robust tradition of individualism, that ethos exists in tension with other social, political, and religious traditions that emphasize community and solidarity. This is an argument most Democrats have failed to voice consistently: that our economic policies should reflect our democratic values. As a result of this failure, policies meant to remedy unjust economic conditions—and thereby strengthen democracy—are too easily caricatured as little more than giveaways to lazy people. Democrats must forcefully take up this debate and once again convince their fellow Americans that a great and free country requires a healthy, educated, and empowered citizenry. The philosopher John Dewey pressed this point strongly:

The current argument against the public dole on the ground that it pauperizes and demoralizes those who receive it has an ironical sound when it comes from those who would leave intact the conditions that cause the necessity for recourse to the method of support of millions at public expense.

Dewey’s words perfectly describe the Republicans’ two-step spending dance, which benefits wealthy Americans at the expense of poorer ones. This is not only morally offensive, but socially destructive. As the late historian Tony Judt observed, social and economic mobility stagnate in societies where high income disparities prevail. Where social inequality is stark, there are higher rates of infant mortality, crime, mental illness, obesity, drug abuse, and other social ills. Judt notes that children born in the United States today—in contrast to their parents and grandparents as well as to citizens in countries like Finland, Canada, and Germany—“have very little expectation of improving upon the condition into which they were born. The poor stay poor.”

The Democratic Party needs leaders who will condemn the Bush tax cuts not only because they explode the deficit, but because they ossify class divisions and undermine the sense of common good essential to the health of a republic. If Democrats could explain to voters how our tax-policy insanity contributes to poor health, crime, drug use and its attendant problems, the decay of inner cities, and the rot of rural poverty, maybe they would find their voice—and a winning political argument. As one audacious Illinois senator and future president said in 2004,

If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandmother.... It’s that fundamental belief—I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper—that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.

Here’s hoping that this sober-minded, deliberative leader can summon some of his former audacity and convince the country that in the current budget battle, something much larger than the deficit is at stake.

Related: Wrong Path, by the Editors
War on Moderation and Class Warfare, by E. J. Dionne Jr.

Published in the 2011-04-22 issue: 

Nathan Pippenger is a freelance writer in Berkeley, California.

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