Thursday, October 28, 2010

Pre-Election Ferment

I should stop reading in the weeks before an election. It just makes me anxious and sickened. But here are a few good pieces I've seen in the last couple of days.

How Entitled Are Entitlements?

I appreciated Ed Lotterman's thoughts today on how eliminating entitlements is a misunderstood concept. Entitlements are any government-run program whose spending is not capped, but is instead based on supplying services or money based on a set of criteria. If you meet the criteria, you get the services or money. This includes everything from Social Security to Medicare to farm subsidies, as well as the "usual suspects" indicted by conservatives (such as food stamps or the much-shrunken descendent of AFDC/"welfare").

Bear with me while I repeat some of Ed's numbers. All entitlements account for $2.3 trillion of the total $3.8 trillion in federal spending. Of that $2.3 trillion, $1.23 is Social Security and Medicare, which not many people (including the Right) seem to plan to cut if they want to get reelected. So cutting entitlements won't eliminate the $1.4 trillion budget deficit unless Social Security or Medicare are part of the cuts.

But say we cut everything except those two -- that would get rid of 80 percent of the deficit, right? Here's what Ed has to say about that:

...this would mean complete elimination of Veterans Administration health services, now strained by veterans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would mean total elimination of all federal funds for unemployment benefits.

It would eliminate Supplemental Security Income for hundreds of thousands of people with Down syndrome, severe spina bifida and other serious disabilities. It would end all Medicaid funding of nursing home bills for hundreds of thousands of the elderly. For thousands of nursing homes across our country, Medicaid is by far the largest source of funding. And it would eliminate all federal student aid.

Confronted with these real-world choices, many ardent advocates of slashing entitlements start to backpedal and talk about cutting welfare payments to illegal immigrants. But the facts are that such outlays are tiny, not even a rounding error in relation to the gap between revenue and spending. The choices simply are harder than many want to admit.
I don't pretend I have all the answers to hard questions like this. I took a stab at the My Minnesota Budget calculator to see if I could fix our state's budget deficit, and it's impossible to do without either substantially raising taxes or taking an axe to programs that directly affect people's lives (K-12 anyone?). Only 12 percent of the people who balanced the budget with the calculator used only spending reductions. 23 percent used revenue increases only; 65 percent combined the two.

All those who seems to think it's easy to decrease the size of government should have to put a real proposal on the table so everyone can respond about the reality of what the cuts mean. That seems to be what Wisconsin's Paul Ryan has done with his Roadmap of America's Future, much as I disagree with it.

Do We Want Change?

Neal Gabler ruminates on how Americans have never really wanted their government to get anything done. Going all the way back to the Federalists and the Republicans (who later became the Democrats), only a national crisis makes it possible for things to get done:
For better or worse, Americans are a timorous bunch who press their government to act only when they think national security is at stake. That's how Eisenhower sold the interstate highway system, how LBJ sold Vietnam and how George W. Bush sold the Iraq war. When we aren't defending ourselves, government just can't seem to muster a consensus to do much of anything.
Do We Want Competent Leaders?

Stephen Budiansky discusses the long-time tension in American electoral politics between anti-intellectualism and the need for competent governance, including this gem:
Ironically, it is conservatives who are the first to scream at the idea that standards or qualifications are being compromised in the name of affirmative action or "political correctness"; yet when liberals dare to suggest that, frankly, you might ought to know something (or even read a book or two, including one by someone you might disagree with) before you shoot your mouth off about economic policy, immigration reform, or foreign affairs, that is "liberal elitism."
Cui Bono? (Hint: That's Not Spanish)

Plus the incredible story from NPR this morning showing how the Arizona immigration criminalization law was created with the help of a for-profit prison corporation that hopes to cash in on a "new market" for its services.

Let's see if that story gets picked up in the media more broadly.

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