Monday, February 07, 2005

Bush's Answer to the Deficit: Cut Social Programs

The size of government has actually been remarkably stable over the last fifty years. It is a misconception that Democrats tax and spend and Republicans slash government and lower taxes. In the end, at the federal level, government spending never substantially drops. The difference instead is between where the government money is spent. One of the most important responsibilities of the President is to introduce the national budget. Thus, the President has a large say over where that government money goes and must set priorities.

George W. Bush introduced his budget today and he has set some priorities of his own. Bush inherited a budget surplus but is now running deficits of over $400 billion a year. Under pressure to balance the budget, he has chosen to reduce government spending on many programs. Balancing the budget requires the President to find the programs that are not benefiting the nation. In essence, the goal is to cut the fat out of the budget and leave the effective programs well funded. Bush claims that this was his motivation in cutting programs in his latest budget proposal. I'll let you be the judge of whether he made the right decisions.

Bush decided that providing health care to the poorest of the poor was not worth the tax payer's money. He chose to cut the Medicaid budget by $45 billion dollars. This includes a program to train doctors for children's hospitals that would be cut by a third. Similarly, a program that helps many of these same poor Americans pay heating bills would be cut by more than 8%. Bush's proposals to Congress also includes cuts in public housing subsidies and in food stamps.

It is not just the poor that bare the brunt of the proposed cuts. Farmers and veterans will also experience the pinch. The budget would cut farm subsidies by $587million. A reduction in those subsidies will be welcomed by developing countries but would severely limit the ability for American farmers to compete.

Furthermore, while Bush claims to support the troops, his latest budget would make it harder for them to receive basic health care services after they return home from duty. It would more than double the co-payment on prescription drug purchases and would require some to pay a new annual fee to receive basic government health care benefits. In addition to these cuts, the budget also includes deep slashes in spending on environmental protection and education. Evidentally, these programs have no place in the national vision of this administration.

Even with all of these cuts to important social services, Bush's budget does contain some new spending. The Pentagon's budget is expected to increase by about $20 billion and the Homeland Security Department would get an extra $2 billion. After these increases in defense spending, the cuts in social programs becomes a wash. It is increasingly clear that this new budget is not about addressing defecit spending, but about shifting resources from social programs to the military industrial complex.

This budget does not even include expenses on the war in Iraq and reconstruction in Afghanistan, for which the administration in expected to seek an extra $80 billion out of budget. Also not included in the budget is the proposed cost of funding the administration's overhaul of Social Security. While there is a good chance the provision will never pass, if it did, it would require borrowing an estimated $4.5 trillion over a twenty year period.

The President's priorities are clear; cut social programs and fund defense, military ventures, tax cuts for the wealthy and reforms that benefit multinational corporations. Bush claims that his cuts will largely be administrative and improve the efficiency of the targeted programs. It is revealing, however, that the most visibly inefficient bureaucracies actually receive hikes in funding. The intelligence community and the military seem to require more streamlining than successful programs to provide basic health care to the poor and veterans, among others. We can not afford a tax cut, a war, and our social programs. Unfortunately, the social programs, which benefit the most helpless and vulnerable Americans, are the first to get the axe. For the Bush administration, the "war on poverty" has been replaced by the "war of terror".

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Sunday, February 06, 2005

The Social Security Strategy

George W. Bush seems to be placing Social Security reform near the top of his agenda. He proclaimed that he had secured political capital after the election and if this is the issue he seeks to pursue, he will need it.

In the past, even the most ardent conservatives have balked when presented with the idea of fundamentally changing the crown jewel of progressives and the most popular social program in the nation's history. The prospect has been widely viewed as political suicide. Supporting privatization risks alienating retirees, future beneficiaries and is perceived as wholly reactionary, a rollback of FDR's New Deal revolution.

Thus begging the question, why Social Security? Why would Bush risk his political momentum on what most view as a loosing hand? typical Dubya fashion, he has a shrewd strategy in place to sell this to the people and the GOP. He actually feels he can turn this devisive issue into a winner and a potential death blow for Democrats. Here is his plan:

1) Remove retired persons from the crux of the debate by ensuring that their benefits will be not be impacted.

Bush has repeatedly noted that under his plan, the current benefits would remain unchanged. The effects of the reform will only be felt in the future. He hopes to neutralize political opposition from senior citizens and powerful organizations such as the AARP.

2) Scare young people by claiming that the system will be completely bankrupt by the time they are eligible to receive benefits.

Despite a consensus opinion among experts to the contrary, Bush continues to assert that Social Security will go bust in the future. This type of fear mongering is a familiar Bush tactic. He seeks to establish a sense of crisis and then exploit that fear to intimidate opponents and justify extreme reforms. If the system is doomed to insolvency, then why not gamble with it a little? Why not cut some guaranteed benefits? They won't be available anyway according to Bush. And when Democrats claim that his figures are wrong he plays the guardian, protecting the American public from deluded politicians who can't see the real dangers that lay ahead.

3) Appeal to a sense of risk taking among young people.

The prior two points are really nothing new. This tactic however could mark the true difference in the way that Bush approaches this issue. Bush is attempting to portray the old school Social Security defenders as behind the times and too rigid in their support of a system that is obviously imperfect. Similarly, he is appealing to young people who are willing to take some risks and take some personal responsibility for their future Social Security benefits. Bush tempts them with claims of invested money accumulating in private accounts. Of course part of this risk is that benefits can no longer be guaranteed. They are largely dependent on the performance of the stock market.

Wasn't the notion of a GUARANTEED social safety net the entire purpose of Social Security to begin with? The need for Social Security stemmed from a recognition that the stock market was subject to busts and that a SEPERATE trust needed to be set up to ensure people basic income after retirement. Bush hopes that young people, removed from the depression era history, will opt to give the stock market another chance.

The problem with this logic, aside from the obvious, is that it fails to account for the doom and gloom projections of the Bush Administration itself. If the economy collapses to such a state that the Social Security system goes "bankrupt", there is no chance that the stock market would be growing at such a rate to save the benefits. In other words, for Social Security to go bankrupt, the economy will have to really suck and if it sucks, your private account won't be worth shit.

Although Democrats have been gun-shy to provide their own solution to a potential Social Security crisis, the solution is really rather simple. Instead of radically restructuring the way the system receives its funds, why not just tap the same capital that the original system was based on? Raising the regressive cap on Social Security taxes would be more than enough to ensure the programs future solvence. As it is now, if you make more than $90,000 a year, you are out of the system. With incomes rising, it seems logical to simply remove that cap. Who suffers? Only people that make enough to bare the burden.

Democrats won't touch the issue because the know that it can be politically toxic. Bush is ignoring this conventional wisdom. Surely there are easier, more politically friendly, items to put at the top of the agenda. Why tackle this one? Perhaps Bush really believes that Social Security is doomed and views privatization as the best route to save it for future generations. More likely, he views it as a means to secure more available capital for investment in big corporations. Maybe it will "trickle down" to us young folks by the time we retire and we won't need Social Security.

Most importantly, Bush likely views this as a way to radically redefine the Republican Party. Give them an inch, they'll take a mile. Give them Social Security, they'll take us back to Herbert Hoover. Conservatives have been trying to reverse many of the gains of progressives for decades, from civil rights to social programs. Bush knows that if the neo-conservative agenda can co-opt the likes of Social Security, they can forge new voting coalitions and discredit past Democratic gains. This is the final prong of his Social Security strategy and it will be relied on to sell this reform to the Republicans in Congress.

Unfortunately, I don't believe that Bush really cares if future generations get their Social Security benefits. If he did, he would not have raided the Social Security surplus and spent it on a war. He wouldn't have pushed for a massive tax cut for the wealthy that could have been used to make Social Security solvent. He also would not be so quick to rule out raising taxes in the future to ensure its solvency. Just as he did with Medicare, Bush is claiming to improve a valued social program with the intent to merely funnel tax payer money to big business.

Luckily, Democrats have a strong opportunity to sap the President of political capital and set a tone of progressive resurgence on the Hill. Social Security is the type of issue that can unite Democrats and split Republicans. Democrats are unlikely to allow a band of neo-conservatives to fiddle and gamble with a defining social program and many Republican's still view Social Security reform as a political lightning rod, much as tax hikes are for Democrats. In the end, I expect the legislation will stall in the Congress and the President will be put on the defensive. But, if Bush is successful, it could signal a true political realignment. Is nothing sacred?

Thursday, February 03, 2005

The State of Political Theater

President Bush took political theater to a new level during last night's State of the Union address. What in the past was a short speech to Congress has gradually morphed into a grand platform for rhetoric and propaganda. If I agreed with his ends, I may applaud his means. After all, this is politics and there is a fine line between manipulation and communication. There is little more agitating than observing a carefully crafted political message and knowing all along that the masses are going to eat it up and ask for seconds. This despite the facts that the display is full of logical holes, exaggerations and neglect for the truth.

The most striking example of Bush's thematic skills was the recognition of the mother of a marine slain in battle and an Iraqi woman whose father had been assassinated at the order of Saddam Husein and who voted in the recent Iraqi election. As the two women embraced, Bush looked on as the triumphant hero who wishes to be seen as the one that made it all possible. In this single event, the themes of the entire military campaign were dramatically played out for the entire nation to witness. The sacrifice and the spoils of victory that make it all worth while. How do you argue with this? This was a big FUCK YOU to Michael Moore, bleeding heart anti-war liberals and anyone else who dare question Bush's decisions. At that moment you were either moved or recognized who really held the reigns of political power, or perhaps a little of both.

But in the end, this staged event did not communicate the truth. For every isolated situation such as this, there are many more mothers who have lost children and do not feel that the price was worth it. There are mothers in Iraq that wonder why they lost their children to malnourishment during a harsh regime of sanctions imposed by the United States. There are Iraqis who value their right to vote but would have liked to have achieved that right in their own struggle. There are members of the Shiite majority who were egged on to rise up against Saddam, only to be abandoned by the elder President Bush. Later, had they not been deprived of basic living standards largely because of the rigid sanctions, perhaps they could have successfully revolted. To these Iraqis, "victory" is bittersweet. They want to create their own Iraq, outside of the blanket of paternalism offered by the United States. Will George W. Bush allow them to?

If this speech was any indicator, he will not. Bush declared the fighting in Iraq to be a battle with terrorists. Many of these supposed terrorists were eligible to vote in the election. These are Iraqi's who want control of their country. A fraction of these insurgents may be terrorists, but most are labeled as such only in that they actively reject the imposition of "democracy" by a foreign power and do so in a violent fashion. These are Iraqis that do not benefit from "majority rules" democracy, because they are in the minority. They fear that an elected Shiite leader will seek vengeance against them and their fears are probably well founded. These people MUST have a place in the future of Iraq if it is to become the stable, liberated state that Bush likes to talk about so frequently. To brand them all as terrorists is to turn a blind eye to history. Ethnic conflicts in Africa, the Balkans and elsewhere stemmed from the reinforcement of ethnic division. But the label is politically and rhetorically potent, and Bush exploits it. Framing the war in Iraq as a single battle in a larger "war on terror" serves the imperialist intentions of neo-liberal world order. And of course, people love to hear that they are part of a dramatic crusade to end terrorism and tyranny.

But in reality, these are not the terrorists that seek destruction in the United States. To portray them as such is another political manipulation and justification for ongoing military action. Bush would like to portray the mother of the Marine and the Iraqi woman who voted on one side and those who object to the military campaign on the other. Those who fight the Bush administration, whether it is politically or militarily, here or abroad, are "with the terrorists". This is a powerful rhetorical weapon indeed.

The election results are not yet in, but much speculation is flying about regarding the potential victor. The favorite seems to be a Shiite Iranian-born and backed religious leader. Suppose the new government in Iraq aligns itself with the current regime in Tehran. Mind you, this is a regime which he specifically threatened in this very State of the Union address. He warned Iran to abandon any pursuit of nuclear weapons and vowed that America will stand against the leadership in Tehran and with Iranians who "seek liberty". We could very well end up involved in a conflict with Iran and, in turn, with the very leadership in Iraq that we helped install.

I highly doubt that Bush and his cohorts will allow this to happen however. It is more likely that America will continue to meddle with Iraq's political system until we achieve the result WE want. This would be very similar to what happened in South Vietnam, where the U.S. denounced a democratically chosen leader as unfairly elected.

Nevertheless, in George W. Bush's world these geopolitical complexities have no place. He preaches sacrifice, democracy and freedom. He is the crusader who feels that it is his calling, and therefore the calling of the United States to "rid the world of tyranny". What significance does the death of a single soldier have in the light of a world free of tyranny? Who would not sacrifice for such an achievement?

Unfortunately, this rhetoric more closely resembles that of a tyrant than a public servant. Bush asks us to sacrifice for the state and its crusade, he speaks about freedom and democracy but cracks down on civil liberties in his own country. He supports altering our Constitution to specifically deprive same-sex partners of any chance at achieving marriage rights. He cuts funding for social programs here at home to fund bombings abroad. The path to ending tyranny is not to fight every people's battles for them, but to serve as an admirable model to the world. We cannot simply impose our values on the world. That may play well during a stateside speech, but oversees it offends and undermines the valuable ability to promote democracy.

I hope that viewers and listeners of this speech will take it for what it was, political theater. One can admire a savvy politician but must never lose sight of the little man behind the curtain. It was a flashy show with little substance and I believe that most will find it impressive but unsettling. In the end, truth will win and Bush and his administration will be exposed. People can be easily manipulated, but they are often very angry when they realize that they've been had.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Imposed Democracy Will Never Succeed

Iraqi voters bravely risked their lives in an inspiring collective act of courage in the recent election. In turn, the United States should act in good faith and fulfill promises of liberation. If the goal of this effort is truly to establish the foundation for a working democracy in Iraq and not to facilitate the veiled appointment of a puppet regime, then the United States should be prepared to honor the results and soon withdraw militarily.

Many Iraqis probably dreamt of this moment, but few likely anticipated that it would come in this fashion. Weakened by years of sanctions and Stalinist tactics, most Iraqis were more concerned with ensuring their next meal than in overthrowing a long entrenched dictator. But, throughout their struggle, some likely maintained faith that a revolution would come. It took great courage to participate in an election largely orchestrated by what most view as an occupying power. When the promise of democracy came, however flawed a process as it may in reality be, many Iraqis seized the opportunity to make a difference in charting a new course for a long suffering nation.

Similarly, the United States has an opportunity to chart a new course. In the past, we ousted elected leaders in Haiti, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Chile and Vietnam, among others. When the people chose to elect leaders whom we ideologically opposed, or viewed as a threat to our own national interests (usually economic), we installed our own hand picked "leaders". I hope that we do not undermine the votes of those who risked their lives in this case.

Ideally, the Iraqi voters will choose a leader that serves their best interests and one that can work with the international community, including the United States. However, it is unlikely that this process will go completely smoothly. A large faction of the Iraqi electorate largely boycotted the election. The Sunni Muslim minority, which ruled the country for centuries, has not embraced the process and it will be difficult to avert future ethnic conflict in the region.

I passionately hope that the Shiite majority does not wield their newfound political power in a democratic "reign of terror" against minority ethnic groups in the region. Democracy surely does not preclude this from happening. After all, when two wolves and a chicken vote on what's for dinner, the outcome is all too clear. Perhaps after decades of recent oppression they can seize the opportunity to start anew and avoid the cycle of political violence. Maybe they will choose a leader that can unite Iraq and regain its strength. In the end, the choice is largely theirs to make. The United States should honor its rhetoric and allow them to create their own destiny.