We Globe bloggers have been sparring over the national debt now for more than a year but are no closer than ever to agreeing on much of anything about it. Anson Burlingame posted recently about commentary on Rick Perry’s book, “Fed Up”, wherein Perry disparages the trend toward socialist programs beginning with Johnson’s Great Society.
While Anson, an avowed conservative, does not specifically defend Perry and has not read his book, he does defend the Tea Party in the sense that by creating the debt-ceiling crisis they forced national leaders to address the debt seriously. He has a point. However, in a comment to his post I pointed out two things. One is that the debt itself might not be the apocalyptically-imminent disaster that he and the Tea Party think it is, and secondly, that national finance is fundamentally different from family finance. I offered two web links to illustrate my points, one of which shows there are 35 nations with worse ratios than ours.
Still, given that the rate of increase in the debt is indeed alarming (principally because of healthcare, in my opinion), I will cede the point that something did need to be done about it and that the debt crisis did indeed draw attention to it. If only that had inspired action on the underlying causes of the debt, I would be rooting for the Tea Party too, but alas, I fear it accomplished nothing of the sort. What it did, because the parties will not work together, was damage the national reputation and the national confidence.
But now in this year of record natural disasters, House majority leader Eric Cantor is demanding offsets in spending to compensate for the additional money FEMA needs, most recently because of hurricane Irene, not to mention the ongoing flooding in Louisiana. Now admittedly Cantor is not calling for delaying aid, but he is insisting on the offsets for this specific purpose. I see this as comporting with Anson’s instincts as well.
So, what’s the problem? The problem is, as usual, in the details. The GOP controls the House, which in turn controls the money, and they will want the offsets to come from Democrat-favored programs. How do I know this? Because of Mr. Cantor’s and other Tea Party members’ track record. There was no suggestion of “offsets” when they asked for extension of the Bush II tax cuts, nor any bending, amid record profits, when Democrats wanted to close tax loopholes such as subsidies for the big oil companies. Mr. Cantor made no mention of any “offsets” in government’s favor when he voted enormous sums to bail out the largest firms on Wall Street.
So why does Cantor choose to make his stand relative to disaster aid with amounts that are tiny compared to what has gone down unquestioned? Indeed, being a practiced politician he must know that for any Congress person to withdraw any kind of funding from their district is virtual political suicide. No, what is needed is a sane budget going forward, something that requires both sides to work together and to compromise.
But what I see missing in the Tea Party’s ideology, in other words, is any willingness to compromise and work with the other party. The Democrats, to their credit, have shown some willingness to compromise, but not on the scale needed. They could start by discussing reasonable reform of Social Security such as means testing and small changes to eligibility ages.
Right now the preeminent problem is unemployment, not the national debt. This is the wrong time to make symbolic stands over relatively small amounts that will further weaken the national credit rating. This is what I told Anson:
I strongly believe that investment in infrastructure right now is an important part of the answer. Highways, bridges, dams, power grids, hospitals, schools. They need attention and the people need work. It is a natural match, and the pay the workers earn will be multiplied throughout the economy. But if we take the simplistic approach of simply cutting spending we will be doomed to Hooverville. The Tea Party may win their way, but if they do there won’t be much left in the rubble to work with, come January, 2013.
Look at the list of national debts again – the cliff is not as near as you think.