Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Agree to Agree for Once

The Co-chairs of Obama’s Deficit Commission, or the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, for those of you who aren’t into the whole brevity thing, recently announced a $3.8 trillion plan that would cut Social Security and Medicare, reduce income-tax rates, eliminate tax breaks including the mortgage-interest deduction and make many specific cuts to different discretionary budget items, including the Defense budget and the National Parks Service. More than likely you are happy about one or two of their proposals and ready to fight tooth and nail about one or two of the other. Indeed, the leftern lobe of the blogosphere has been lighting up my inbox with headlines like “They just declared war on Social Security”. And the gauntlets have also been flying from the rightermost regions, with oaths of “No new taxes!” and “No deals, Mr. ‘Bama.”

If you’re interested in reading a variety of reactions to the proposals, I recommend this article from the Times which I think helps puts some of the issues into perspective.

This is probably the third draft of this blog. The first, especially after reading the list of cuts and changes to the discretionary aspects of the budget, was fairly rah-rah. I said, hey, this is the first time in my political life that I have heard anyone make a set of serious and specific proposals to address our country’s deficit problem so we should get behind it. Then I moved on to an angry WTF-type-of-thing, especially after reading more about the proposed changes and cuts to the entitlements portion of the budget (Social Security, Medicare etc.). I was ready to decry the proposal as another right wing plot to leave the poor and disadvantaged in misery and give money to the wealthy in the hopes that it would some day trickle down. I wanted to remind everyone that in addition to the moral question of social justice, we needed to realize that spending money on people in one way (Social Security, health care, education) would mean avoiding paying even more money for them later when their sh*t really hit the fan.

But these are tough times, arguably extraordinarily tough ones even, and I think they demand some extraordinary measures. So this is third draft (third verse, different than the first). The deal is that there is no way to balance our budget and reduce the deficit through discretionary cuts alone. No way to tax or spend our way out of depression. Anyone offering a simple solution is selling snake oil. A serious solution to our problems will be difficult and complicated--two things that politicians and Americans don’t generally want to say or hear.

Every one of us is will be required to make some sacrifices and decide just what is important, not to us or to our personal interests, but for the future of our country. Not just for or our children and their children, but our neighbors’ children. So the first sacrifice that I’m asking of myself and you, is to let go of our anger and bitterness, our mistrust and ideology. Our next step is agreeing to agree, however disagreeable that may be. Let us agree that the solution to our budget deficit, even the future of our country, is going to entail change. Let us maintain a high index of suspicion for any proposal that makes it sounds like things are going to be fixed with a few small tweaks but that otherwise we will be able to keep on going in the same comfortable way we have become accustomed to. The heat is on and the windows are down, my friends, so let us agree that some serious changes will need to be made to taxes and discretionary budgets and entitlement programs if we are to survive our over 13 and a half trillion dollar debt ($13,736,876,145 right now to be exact). This is something like a debt of $125,000 per taxpayer (watch the national debt clock ticking here).

I don’t see our current legislature, or perhaps any group of people who want to get re-elected, being able to agree on something as difficult and by nature unpopular as balancing the budget and reducing our ridiculously large deficit. Unpopular, why? Okay maybe unpopular is not the right word. Indeed, the idea seems eminently popular. What people don’t seem to like is any of this stuff affecting them, right? And that’s the problem, as soon as we start discussing these proposals, anyone who is or might be affected by any of them are not going to be happy and will start calling their congresspeoples and local radio talk shows. And the result will be a humpty-dumpty collection of disputed and in the end muted proposals that the legislature will never be able to piece back together again into a comprehensive package. So here’s the silver lining, a 14-vote Commission majority on a deficit reduction plan would require Congress to vote on the package unchanged. Still not easy, but at least fathomable. So all we have to do is get this bipartisan commission to agree, just 14 people, not 100 senators and 435 congresspeoples.

It seems clear to me then, and I hope to you, that our best way out of this mess is to throw everything we’ve got, we the people, into making sure this Commission comes up with the best proposal it can be, however much wrangling it takes, and that at least 14 of the 18 members agree to it. Let’s agree that it’s going to be difficult and that nobody will be really happy with it (sound like health care reform yet?), but that we’ve just to got to do it. Maybe it won’t be exactly the right mix of cuts and changes, and more than likely we will have to make some more cuts or go back and change some things that turn out to suck, but now is the time to roll up our sleeves and get stuck in there. It’s going to be a Pyrrhic victory, so let’s put on our Greek gloves and take out some budgetary trash.

What I’m asking you to do is throw away your ideology, not your morality or intelligence or compassion, just your ideology. I won’t push this part, but if you can muster it, send out some New Agey, 100th Monkey-ey type positive vibrations that things are going to change for the better, that a compromise can and will be reached. Finally, and this is important, send the debt commission and your national representatives a message telling them exactly what your priorities are in terms of budget cuts and changes, starting with your number one priority, which is that some intelligent, compassionate and serious changes and cuts must be made. You can contact the commission by email ( or visit their website. Here is a website that allows you to email your representatives, and your local or national media (you have to register first, then look for the links under 'Advocacy 101' on the right side of the page).

Here is what I’m planning on sending:
Dear Deficit Commission,

I beg of you to work hard over these next few weeks to come up with a proposal that you can agree upon and that entails intelligent, compassionate and serious changes to our national budget. Business as usual is no longer an option with a $13.7 trillion deficit, economic depression and another energy crisis around the corner. Not to mention our crumbling infrastructure and lagging educational system. There is no choice but success.

I believe you should focus on cuts to those parts of the budget that are most contributing to our national debt: Defense, Medicare and Social Security.

I’ll start with the hardest job, cutting some little old lady’s retirement benefits. All I can say is that for some people, the difference between getting their Social Security check or not is the difference between having proper food and shelter, and if they can’t afford these most basic of necessities than we are going to have to pay for more food stamps and shelters for them anyway and no money will end up being saved. So please cut carefully. Maybe you can create one retirement age for the white collar who can more easily work at age 70 and another for blue collar workers who aren't likely to be able to lift those garbage cans or crates at that age.

Regarding Defense, we have the most expensive military in the world by a factor of several countries put together. Nothing wrong with having the best, but it should not cost what several other G8 countries put together are paying. Let's get lean and mean. Do we need nukes? Do we need as many subs? Do we need? Do we need? How many megaton bombs and super intercontinental missiles do we currently need or use? Or have we ever used? Cuts should be made based on defense items we actually use and those that we might use in the future (intelligence, so-called “smart” bombs and troops on the ground type stuff). Get in there and cut the rest. Look at how Southwest Airlines saved money: one multipurpose fleet of planes, needing only one set of parts and training. Do we really need F-15s, F-16s and F-35s? Indeed, I’m happy to see some of this addressed in your CoChair report. I urge you to go further.

Next up, the nukes. I think it should be called nuclear encouragement rather than deterrence, because that’s what it seem to be doing, encouraging other countries to build bombs. Have all our nuclear bombs stopped the terrorists from attacking us or anyone else? It would seem not. Do any of our military conflicts present or future look like they will be stopped by the threat of dropping the big one? I think not. So cut away.

Regarding Medicare, decisions need to be made about costly interventions like dialysis (the single biggest drain on the system), organ transplants, end-of-life ICU all out wars against dignity and reality, and expensive new prescription drugs. Any medical device, drug or intervention that has not been proven more effective, and not just marginally more so, in head to head controlled trials than a generic, traditional or lower cost alternative should not be covered by Medicare, or covered at a reduced percentage. And those that are more effective need much tighter protocols on when they are to be used.

Let’s not mess around with the little stuff like PBS and the National Parks. The reason our country is bankrupt has nothing to do with PBS or the parks, and if even it did, their budgets just aren’t big enough to make a dent in the deficits we are now facing.

Taxes, nobody likes to pay them, but the truth is some people can afford to pay more than others. I believe in a much simpler and progressive tax structure. I think it’s clear that budget cuts and freezes alone are not going to do it. If the Commission’s proposal is to have any chance of getting the 14 votes it needs to pass and without which there is little hope of it being approved by Congress in any form likely to do much good, it will have to be bipartisan, meaning more revenue AND less spending. However distasteful to the right or left, revenue will have to be raised. Please keep all taxes and revenue progressive. People or businesses making more money should pay more money as a percentage of their income than those making less. This does not preclude the value or necessity of incentives to our economy and the direction of our growth. Encouraging behaviors through complicated tax loopholes is a game that only those who can afford a CPA can play. Let’s keep it simple. A progressive tax structure with simple and easily applied incentives for behaviors we want to encourage (saving money, education, science, research, small business investment, whatever). When I lived in France I was able to fill out my taxes online in about an hour and still benefited from savings incentives, housing aid etc. The incentives don't have to involve arcane and Gordian knots and loopholes. Simple and progressive.

Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.

Kevin Lapin
A concerned and voting citizen