Tuesday, February 15, 2011

actual seriousness

Today has been the day for bloggers and pundits everywhere to decry Obama's lack of "seriousness" for failing to enact harsh budgetary measures. (And, in doing so, continuing to punish poor people for a financial crisis inflicted by wealthy people.) Nobody has been more vocal or more consistent than Andrew Sullivan, who has been stamping around, letting out the energy he built up during his illness, I guess. I admire Sullivan's willingness to change his mind on Obama, to upset some of his readership, and to attack a leader he admires. But something is very askew, and it is indicative of a glaring flaw among almost everyone lambasting Obama over his budget.

Sullivan maintains a belief that perhaps some Republican-- some serious Republican-- will come along and take advantage of Obama's supposed weakness and put forth a budget plan that is serious. Well, hope springs eternal in the human heart. You would think that a man who has spent the last decade meticulously following America partisan politics would be immune to getting inspired by a Republican politician, but apparently not. What any actual Republican deficit strategy will amount to is yet more signaling of who is "good" and who is "bad" in the conservative mind. Why go after funding for the arts, when that's such a tiny sliver of federal spending that it's almost entirely symbolic? Because fags and weirdos make art. That's why.You can bet, though, that any proposal that is deemed sufficiently serious by Sullivan and any host of other conservative bloggers will be one that hurts the least well off. That's the shorthand that's being used here, after all. What's serious is what trims poor old people from the Social Security rolls and poor sick people from the Medicare rolls.

Here's what you won't find at the Daily Dish, or at the Corner, or in any of the other places showily demanding seriousness: the actual, human, negative consequences of harsh entitlement cutbacks. I mean, from reading online today, you'd be hard pressed to know why we have Social Security and Medicare at all. I'll tell you why: because our winner-take-all economic system leaves defenseless, impoverished people in its wake. We have Social Security because the sight of so many elderly people left literally homeless and starving , too old and weak to work, was unseemly to an earlier generation that was willing to take less for themselves to provide for others. We have Medicare because it is an obscenity for a country responsible for the atom bomb and the moon landing and the Hoover Dam to allow suffer and die from lack of health care access due to the vagaries of birth and chance. That's why those programs exist.

Cutting them will lead to human misery and death. It will. Cutting Social Security will mean the difference between subsistence and a pitiful existence for untold thousands of senior citizens. Cutting Medicare will mean some people won't get the health care they need when they need it and will suffer the physical pain and indignity that comes with that. That's just the way it is. Yet I keep reading all of these very serious people today failing to mention this reality at all. It's as if we have entitlement programs for no reason.

Phony, showy seriousness is built on complaints, vague talk about thrift and national virtue, and a studied, preach-to-the-choir attitude where well paid journos and pundits see who can outdo each other in advocating measures that will be painful to others but painless for them. Actual seriousness means wrestling with the very serious and real costs of the harsh measures you're advocating. You don't get to show your courage in being ruthlessly pragmatic if you aren't willing to show who you are being ruthless against. The first step is showing the victims. Perhaps if Sullivan gets the deficit-reducing budget he wants, the Dish can start a "Homeless Grandmother of the Day" feature. Democracy needs that sort of thing; it's far, far too easy for people to operate in generalizations that preserve the illusion of painlessness.

It goes both ways, though. Me, I'd like to see our insane military budget cut severely, and you start by pulling almost all of the troops out of the 155 countries we have them currently stationed in. But the defense industry employs a lot of people.... That's the problem with austerity measures; they kill jobs. I hope the people asking for these sweeping budget measures are ready for 12%-15% unemployment....

Update: Sullivan responds. I feel compelled to note that this response is the most explicit he's been in acknowledging this reality since the Obama budget came out.

26 comments:

Handle said...

Nope. Reducing the amount of money spent on health care provided by the government to the elderly and indigent to the amounts that are typical in the rest of the developed world (with comparable availability of certain medical services) would immediately save hundreds of billions of dollars and not cause any misery at all (unless you think the systems in the UK, France, Sweden, and Japan are just workhouse deathcamps compared to American generosity).

The fact is we're *way* beyond the point of diminishing returns when it comes to getting value for our health-related expenditures. If we adopt the same system and percent-of-GDP expenditures of any of these countries, certain low-value "goodies" would become rationed, waiting-listed, or just plain unavailable, but that's called budget reality - you do the best you can with what you have, just like all the other countries do.

We'd immediately save a Trillion a year and balance the budget. You wouldn't have to cut anything else. And no misery - just a lot of pissed off old people - who are only pissed off because their insane expectations they'd been led to feel entitled to aren't being delivered. Well cry me a river - it's one thing to provide for poor grasshopper who didn't save for the winter, it's another when grasshopper bitches that you're giving him world-standard sandwiches instead of only-in-America lobster and caviar.

Is that not serious enough for you? This, by the way, is what "entitlement reform" means in code, and everybody knows it.

Freddie said...

No, it is not serious enough for me. It is the opposite of serious.

E.D. Kain said...

I asked this question earlier, but do you think Sullivan even knows why he wants spending cut? I just don't get the feeling that there's anything behind that wish. It's just bizarre that he would support so many Obama programs and still want spending cuts. I mean, it's not due to inflation. Inflation is flat. It's not because our creditors are cutting us off - far from it.

john s newman said...

If you haven't seen this already it rounds out your last point with some big defense line items that are almost entirely waste:

http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2011/02/obama-happy-to-cut-broad-range-of-services-to-preserve-pentagon-pork.html

Alex Waller said...

I've often wondered how many people are employed by in the Defense industry that could otherwise be making a difference in the civilian world with their sharp brains, rather than using those brains to design weapons, hunt terrorists, fly UAVs, etc.
Certainly axing the Defense budget means people in the short term would lose work. But toppling, or even partially-toppling the military-industrial complex would move a lot of intellectual capital in to industries where they might actually do some good for humanity.

Or so I dream...

Louis said...

In reading these debates I've noticed that Democrats rarely make arguments on first principles for fear that they will be unpopular. Instead, they try to hide what they're really trying to do (provide for the defenseless, improve the safety net), which in recent years has backfired because Republicans no longer even try to appeal to the political center.

So with the "entitlement" debate we have one side who wants to find some clever way to change the formula to make the system sustainable, while the other side is comfortable making dishonest arguments that disguise their true aims.

That said, I think it might help to rethink what we want these programs to do. Social Security is relatively stable, but even so it might help to reframe it as a social insurance program, rather than a defined benefit program. Retired people tend to have very low expenses, so even cutting off benefits to everyone who makes more than $50K from investment income, pensions, etc., seems reasonable to me. With the savings we could even make the program more generous for the truly bad off.

Likewise, I'd like to see Medicare and Medicaid merged, and both become something like a minimum health care plan for all. Since we're talking about decades-long planning here, we could even train doctors, nurses, etc., for the government-run (and maybe operated) health plan, which would offer pay/benefits/respect close to what already exists for the military, public schoolteachers, etc.

Anonymous said...

"We have Social Security because the sight of so many elderly people left literally homeless and starving , too old and weak to work, was unseemly to an earlier generation that was willing to take less for themselves to provide for others"

Not true. We have SS because FDR's administration wanted to lower the unemployment rate and they thought paying people to leave the workforce was a good way to do it, with the added bonus of giving money to a large block of highly likely voters.

We have the clean air act because a bunch of coal power plants were going to be replaced by a new generation of more efficient and cleaner plants. The old plants lobbied and got grandfather clauses while adding financial burdens to newer plants so that older plants could remain profitable for years.

If you were to look back I am sure that yo would find large health-care companies lobbying for M&M and helping to shape its legislation so they could make a buck.

Or you could simply go on saying what you wish and think was true rather than researching what actually took place and understanding how and why these programs were structured in the way they were.

Elia Isquire said...

Thank you for this.

And, ED, I similarly don't understand where Sullivan is coming from anymore.

I think it has something to do with bond vigilantes, though. And, for some reason, the idea that if we don't do it now, we won't do it at all.

christian said...

Expertly stated. More Democrats should cut and paste your argument.

Sullivan can be fair, but his false sense of outrage over what these cuts means is typical of his insulated Pro-Thatcher/Reagan mindset.

KJ said...

I found your blog via Sullivan. I read him only intermittently, so today I got lucky because I found L'Hote. Reading your post was bracing and, to my mind, positively dead-on accurate. You have gained another reader.

KJ said...

Btw, have you seen Jeffrey Sachs unload on both parties over the budget debate? It's good. Very good.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bCPz2SzROFQ

Elia Isquire said...

At the very least this post compelled Sullivan to get into more detail as to why he's so hawkish right now about the deficit. I appreciated that; there's firmer ground for us to stand on now and see how far apart we are. Maybe because these issues have been central to his political philosophy for a while, I think he forgot somewhat to spell it out as if we were at square 1 (or at least square...3).

Elia Isquire said...

P.S. Thanks so much for that vid, KJ!

jim filyaw said...

this is a remarkable article. it says what i have been thinking for years in perceptive and impressive fashion. i intend to pass it around. as another blogger recently observed, "before tearing down walls, one ought to find out why they were put up." that is apparently too much to ask of sullivan and mccardle.

Anonymous said...

Yeah I call bullshit on your characterization of Sullivan's arguments. In your second link you claim Sullivan "maintains a belief that perhaps some Republican...", yet in the post you link to, he ends with:

"The real question now is: will the GOP call Obama's bluff? Or do they have as little courage as he does? I'm pretty sure I know the answer, but I'd sure love to be proven wrong."

which is the opposite of what you portrayed. He consistently posts about and links to stories showing Republican fecklessness and hypocrisy towards the debt and spending.

He constantly rails against balancing the deficit on the backs of those least able to cope while lowering taxes for the wealthiest. He highlights growing economic inequality and Republican lies about small businesses.

Your post asserts that it's simply impossible to cut government spending without causing "human misery and death". Wow I wonder why we have such a hard time balancing our budget when even talking about cuts in general is met with "you want to kill old and sick people".

Ben There said...

Just wanted to chime and echo other praises of this blog post. Another hit from L'Hote.

Anonymous said...

Sullivan is hawkish on the deficit because we are $1000000000000 in hole this year! Shouldn't we all be hawkish on the deficit?

Joel said...

Nice post, Freddie.

Anonymous said...

"Sullivan is hawkish on the deficit because we are $1000000000000 in hole this year! Shouldn't we all be hawkish on the deficit?"

No one wants to needlessly run up debt. Repubs shouldn't feel so special about that. But borrowing money to get things is how the world works. Its how your own personal world works. Inflation and interest rates are at historical lows. The debt and deficit are not responsible for the unemployment rate. They're not responsible for exorbitantly rising healthcare costs. Get serious about those two things and the rest will be much easier to solve and bear.

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