Here's what I mean. Consider cutting SNAP benefits. Cutting SNAP benefits leads to more hungry children. Yet pointing out that consequence is consistently regarded as a blood libel, or crossing the line, or not engaging in substantive! respectful! debate! This is why I talk so much about the tyranny of social relationships in political commentary. It's considered out of bounds to say things like "your proposal leads to hungry kids," but cutting SNAP benefits leads to hungry kids. It just does. The thing is that when you're stamping around talking about the unfairness of the question, you aren't answering it.
The other alternative to treating such a question as rhetorical and insulting is to wax abstract. "Ah, well, getting our financial house in order means shared sacrifice...." And their eyes sort of roll back and they are lost in the world of abstraction. But hungry kids are strikingly non-theoretical. Just like, for example, homeless senior citizens or seniors who can't afford medical care without which they will die are strikingly non-theoretical. So, what will we do about them in the future? Let's complete remove any moral considerations here. Let's not even consider what these people deserve and what we think they should get. Let's just get to practical concerns. Look, letting Grandma live in the alley is an option. That could happen. Just like hundreds of thousands of kids not getting nearly the nutrition they need is an option. I'm just asking if we're cool with it. When you have the dorm room conversation with the Randian about whether we should literally let people die in the street, you've got to insist on the practical problems (do we just let the corpses pile up? do we pay teenagers to push around a cart?) as well as the moral problems.
Think that this isn't a realistic line of questioning, talking about hungry kids and homeless seniors and unemployed people turning to crime? Peep these numbers and really think about it. Forgive the large block quote here-- this is from the CBO's letter on the Ryan plan:
The path for all other federal spending excluding interest—that is, for discretionary spending and mandatory spending apart from that for Social Security and the major mandatory health care programs—was specified by Chairman Ryan’s staff. The remaining part of mandatory spending includes such programs as federal civilian and military retirement, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, unemployment compensation, Supplemental Security Income, the refundable portion of the earned income and child tax credits, and most veterans’ programs. Discretionary spending includes both defense spending and nondefense spending—in roughly equal amounts currently. That combination of other mandatory and discretionary spending was specified to decline from 12 percent of GDP in 2010 to about 6 percent in 2021 and then move in line with the GDP price deflator beginning in 2022, which would generate a further decline relative to GDP. No proposals were specified that would generate that path.Think about that for a little bit. All non-Social Security/Medicare/Medicaid spending reducing at that rate in that amount of time. These aren't deep cuts. These aren't harsh cuts. These are transformative cuts. And they will have consequences that are going to be, frankly, crazy. (I'm really going to enjoy watching the Republicans cut military pensions. Should be a winner.)
But abstraction will survive. The pundits, journalist, politicos, bloggers, and so on who advocate these cuts aren't the people who will live with the consequences. It's one of the most persistent and most vexing problems with our democracy: both the politicians in our country and the people who report and comment on them live in an entirely different economic station from the average American. David Brooks will never go to some poor hungry child's home and look the kid in the eye and praise Paul Ryan's toughness. He's not going to be forced to live with the day in, day out consequences of cutting unemployment benefits for millions of people. Nobody's going to be calling him, begging him to watch their kids for a couple hours because they can't afford day care anymore. Meanwhile, he and others like him will live in the world of abstraction, where the pleasant lies of metaphor shield them from a cruelly literal world.