Monday, August 08, 2011

Budget Cuts

Excuse me while I lecture a bit on the so-called budget cuts.

First, no one is cutting anything. Not the Tea Party or the Republicans, and certainly not the Democrats or our illustrious president. No one. Is cutting. Anything.

Explaining that requires a bit of a digression. The first joke I ever learned was, "How can you tell a politician is lying? His lips are moving." Politicians lie. I don't mean they occasionally stretch the truth or omit an inconvenient fact. I mean they outright lie. All the time. Everything a politician says is a carefully crafted, focus-grouped lie. Every. Single. Word.

Most people reading this are smirking and nodding their heads in agreement. Allow me to wipe the smile from your face. Nearly every organization in this county has become political. Which means every word they say is also a carefully crafted, focus-grouped lie. Your union? Every word is a lie. AARP? Every word is a lie. The whole cadre of 24-hour news programs? Every word is a lie. Whatever non-profit group you pay dues to? Sorry. All lies. Every. Single. Word.

I know this sounds like tinfoil-hat conspiracy theory nonsense. But all you need to do is consider our political incentive structure. Whether we are talking about a member of Congress, a talking head on CNN, or an AARP newsletter, what happens when someone is caught lying? Nothing. There is zero down-side to lying. Telling the truth, however, is a guaranteed short drop and a sudden stop. (Metaphorically. At least here in the United States. At least for now.) What would the odds of re-election be for any member of Congress who stood up at a town hall meeting and told his constituents not to bother sending their children to college because they will never make back the money spent on a degree in an economy in permanent decline? How many seniors would continue to pay dues to AARP if their newsletter began advocating the roll-back of Medicare or means-testing Social Security benefits? How long do you think a UAW president would have his cushy unlimited-free-donuts-and-coffee job if he told his membership that none of them would ever make as much as their fathers and grandfathers, or that the once-in-human-history confluence of events after World War II that made pensions possible are gone, and with them any hope of working for 30 years, then being paid to sit on their asses for the next 40? So instead of stating the provable truth, they all run screaming in the other direction. No conspiracy necessary; lying is self-preservation. That careful selection of what they chose to lie about also increases their political clout is just frosting on the cake.

Lying takes many forms. Given the illiteracy, innumeracy and general ignorance of Americans, thanks to our world-class public education system, simply stating something as fact that is easily proven to be untrue works passably well. But a better way is to use familiar terminology to mean something, as in our present case, the exact opposite. If I say Debbie and I are cutting our budget for next year, you would assume that we meant for every dollar we spent in 2011, we would, on average, spend some fraction of a dollar in 2012. If our rent in 2011 is $625/month, you would be safe in assuming that we were figuring on doing whatever was necessary to pay some amount less than $625/month in 2012. That's what a budget cut means to the average person on the street. It's is the exact opposite of what a politician, whether elected or not, means when he uses the term. (Because I don't want to get carpel tunnel syndrome typing zeros, I'll stick with household-budget-scale numbers. Feel free to multiply by whatever power of ten suits you.) What they mean by budget cuts is that if the government is paying $625/month for X in 2011 with an already-planned increase to $650/month in 2012, reducing that increase to $645/month is a $5/month budget cut. Which is a lie.

Part of the resolution to the manufactured crisis over the debt ceiling was just this sort of "budget cutting". Congress is supposed to "cut" $2 trillion dollars over the next ten years from a ten-year budget that, under existing legislation, has already-planned increases of (very conservatively) $9.5 trillion built into it. This is budget cutting so severe that there will be the dead bodies of our elderly and poor piled in the streets. This is budget cutting so severe that the lefty talking heads and politicians are labeling its proponents "terrorists". This is the government "austerity" that is causing the stock market to crash and sending us into a double-dip recession.

But the lying doesn't stop there. Nothing happens until 2013, meaning all the "budget cuts" come after the 2012 game of musical chairs in Congress and the White House is over. Constitutionally, no session of Congress can require a future Congress to do anything, which is why we have one of these god-awful ten-year plans at least once a year. After the lying political talking heads on CNN and Fox News whip everyone up into a lather over these "draconian cuts", whoever ends up in the Imperial City after the 2012 elections will kick this budget deal to the curb faster than a bucket of week-old dirty diapers, and the United States debt will continue its asymptotic climb. At least until the Chinese, Germans, Swiss, et al. cut us off like so many trust fund babies who just crashed their fifth Ferrari. Then we will see what real budget cuts and austerity measures look like.

End lecture.

No comments: