There are only two possibilities, mathematically speaking — either we have a balanced budget, or debt goes up. Can people of all political stripes agree on that?

Here is my question to my friends on the conservative end of the spectrum. Assuming that continuously increasing debt is intolerable, we must balance the budget, right? Okay, how do we accomplish that? There are only two variables in the balanced budget equation: spending and taxation. But you flatly reject taxation as a solution. So that leaves us trying to balance the budget ENTIRELY through spending cuts. With the deficit running at $1.3 trillion annually, we would need spending cuts in that amount to balance the budget. I would be curious just what cuts you have in mind of that magnitude. If you cannot cut $1.3 trillion in spending, and if we cannot raise taxes, then how is it mathematically possible to balance the budget? And if you cannot balance the budget, are you not advocating for for increased federal debt? The math is inescapable.

Here is my question to my friends on the liberal end of the spectrum. This is a breakdown of Obama’s FY2010 budget:

Mandatory spending: $2.184 trillion (+15.6%):
$695 billion (+4.9%) – Social Security
$453 billion (+6.6%) – Medicare
$290 billion (+12.0%) – Medicaid
$0 billion (−100%) – Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP)
$0 billion (−100%) – Financial stabilization efforts
$11 billion (+275%) – Potential disaster costs
$571 billion (−15.2%) – Other mandatory programs
$164 billion (+18.0%) – Interest on National Debt

Discretionary spending: $1.368 trillion (+13.1%):
$663.7 billion (+12.7%) – Department of Defense (including Overseas Contingency Operations)
$78.7 billion (−1.7%) – Department of Health and Human Services
$72.5 billion (+2.8%) – Department of Transportation
$52.5 billion (+10.3%) – Department of Veterans Affairs
$51.7 billion (+40.9%) – Department of State and Other International Programs
$47.5 billion (+18.5%) – Department of Housing and Urban Development
$46.7 billion (+12.8%) – Department of Education
$42.7 billion (+1.2%) – Department of Homeland Security
$26.3 billion (−0.4%) – Department of Energy
$26.0 billion (+8.8%) – Department of Agriculture
$23.9 billion (−6.3%) – Department of Justice
$18.7 billion (+5.1%) – National Aeronautics and Space Administration
$13.8 billion (+48.4%) – Department of Commerce
$13.3 billion (+4.7%) – Department of Labor
$13.3 billion (+4.7%) – Department of the Treasury
$12.0 billion (+6.2%) – Department of the Interior
$10.5 billion (+34.6%) – Environmental Protection Agency
$9.7 billion (+10.2%) – Social Security Administration
$7.0 billion (+1.4%) – National Science Foundation
$5.1 billion (−3.8%) – Corps of Engineers
$5.0 billion (+100%) – National Infrastructure Bank
$1.1 billion (+22.2%) – Corporation for National and Community Service
$0.7 billion (0.0%) – Small Business Administration
$0.6 billion (−14.3%) – General Services Administration
$19.8 billion (+3.7%) – Other Agencies
$105 billion – Other

Why must we have a 13.1% increase in discretionary spending? Isn’t that the height of irresponsibility in these times? The economy is booming again. The stock market is up by 60% in the past year. The massive job losses  of 2007-08 have ended, and all signs point to job creation around the corner as the economy continues to expand. Surely we can have a budget that acknowledges the economic drag that $1.3 trillion annual deficits, and $13 trillion of cumulative federal debt, have.

No matter how I look at things, I come back to the same conclusion. Ideologues are America’s greatest enemy.


I have been having a very thought-provoking conversation with a blogger named Texas56. It started with a post of hers, raising a number of very legitimate criticisms of Sen Boxer of California. My most recent comment to her blog became the origin of this post.

The exchange got me more focused on an issue that has been bothering me for some time. Who decided that Republicans were the party of conservative America? Despite the occasional “damn all the politicians” sentiment from the likes of Glenn Beck, and despite a very thin veneer of non-partisanship blanketing the tea-party movement, how is it that Democrats are scathingly excoriated by the right, while Republicans are merely admonished from time to time? What exactly is conservative about the modern Republican party?

In my opinion, Republicans these days are every bit as responsible for undermining conservative principles as Democrats. Okay, maybe that’s not fair. If Democrats get a score of 15/100 on the conservative scale, maybe Republicans deserve a 30. But that is scarcely recognized in terms of how the voice of conservative America speaks forth.

I ask my conservative friends:

Is not liberty a fundamental conservative principle? Yet it was Republicans who trampled our liberty into the dust via the Patriot Act. Republicans who have persistently sought to stamp out liberty for gays and pregnant women. Republicans who consistently oppose voter registration drives. Why are conservatives not apoplectic over these egregiously anti-liberty positions of the modern Republican party?

Is not fiscal responsibility not a fundamental conservative principle? Yet, somewhere along the way, Republicans decided that massive federal debt is the answer to funding our government. They keep pushing tax cuts, but never spending cuts. How politically expedient is that? — “Have some more dessert, voters; don’t worry about eating your vegetables!” How can putting this country $11 trillion in debt — the pre-Obama total, mind you — possibly be considered fiscally responsible? In fact, I would argue that cutting taxes is the most fiscally irresponsible act possible — if spending is not cut and a massive accumulation of debt is the result. Just ask Dave Ramsey.

So, here’s the real challenge: Are conservatives willing to throw Republicans under the bus along with the Democrats? Are conservatives willing to denounce Republicans who oppose liberty when that means gay rights, or a woman’s right to choose, or giving every possible person the opportunity to vote? Are conservatives willing to embrace fiscal responsibility when that means higher taxes? If so, I’m there to join with you. I’m ready to vote for candidates like that. If he came from my part of the country and were still active in politics, I would vote for Joe Scarborough in a heartbeat.

But as long as Democrats have to take the hit alone, as long as Republicans are given a free pass by conservatives, as long as conservatives remain blind to the myriad of ways that Republicans violate conservative principles in this country, as long as conservatives howl at Nancy Pelosi but cheer Joe Wilson — or Barack Obama versus Sarah Palin, or any other inexplicable dichotomy — I cannot stand with them.

OMG, I’m starting to sound like Ron Paul. Somebody help me.

Without yet getting into whether Rep. Wilson was “right” or not, what he did was one of the most profoundly un-conservative acts in memory. The first principle of conservatism is to conserve. Conservatives more than any other segment recognize, or ought to, our mutual responsibility to conserve, defend and protect those basic institutions on which order, stability and prosperity depend. His act demeaned and belittled the presidency, an institution which has been constitutionally ingrained in our way of life for more than 200 years. If he has something to say, he has any number of legitimate means of expression. Whatever happened to op ed pieces in the paper, or appearances on Hannity, or speeches to his constituents, or posts on his website? Whatever the merits of his outburst, he chose the one radical means of expression that utterly belies conservative principles.

I also have to point out this irony. There are many aspects of Pres. Obama’s healthcare ideas that require a hard swallow to accept at face value. He is, after all, a politician by trade, and he is going to spin the story in his favor as much as he can get away with. Yet, Rep. Wilson chose to brand as a lie one of the most incontrovertibly true statements of the night. Who is this guy, and, basically, WTF on that???

· Cut the amount that America spends on healthcare in half.

· Provided universal health insurance coverage. Yep, 100%.

· If you have a serious illness, such as cancer, paid 100% of the costs of treatment.

· Used the private market to deliver all healthcare, including an option for doctors and others to opt out of participating in the government-funded plan. Retained the fee-for-service arrangement that dominates US healthcare system now, to minimize disruption. Provided doctors with greater independence in diagnosis and treatment than the European model.

·  Reduced infant mortality by 40%; raised life expectancy; lowered mortality rates from preventable diseases.

Would you support a plan like that? Welcome to France. If you would not support that, why not?

I have been having a very thoughtful exchange with another blogger about these tea parties, and what they represent. It finally dawned on me why I am vaguely mistrustful of the tea party movement, even though I support its basic message. I suspect I differ from most tea-party folk in terms of our understanding of what the ramifications of such a movement will mean.

Much anger is directed at frivolous, wasteful and excessive spending. By all means, let’s light the torches and demand an end to all that. But, once all of that has been taken away — all the Congressional perks, all the earmarks, all the unambiguously pork projects — what do we have? An annual deficit of maybe $700 billion instead of $1 trillion.

People have to be ready for the cold, hard reality that this means large-scale reductions in government services. This may mean that Social Security and Medicare start at 68, not 65. And that grandma has to live in the spare room instead of the nursing home, due to Medicaid cuts. And that I have to fork over $700 for a laptop for my highschooler, because the schools don’t have enough computers. And that expressways become tollways because of cuts in federal transportation funding. And that food plants are inspected less often. And that national parks are closed from November through March. And that we withdraw precipitously from Iraq and Afghanistan. And that the cost to ride Amtrak or mail a letter goes up by 50%.

The list is endless, and more importantly, it isn’t painless. In fact, it will be extremely painful.

Government may be broken, but WE broke it. Candidates told us we could have all these services, and pay less in taxes, too! Glory be! Sign me up!!! We got exactly what we asked for.

There was no betrayal, except of ourselves, by ourselves. We are not the victims, we are the perpetrators. And the pain of restoring order will be our pain, not theirs. I pray that people get that.

In this moment when the news is dominated by stories about tea parties, presidential bows, tax cuts and stimulus packages…

In this moment when it is so hard to find solid ground…

I think this: the great conflict in this moment is not between the “right wing” and the “left wing.” It is not between conservatives and liberals.

It is between pragmatists and ideologues.

I hope that people are rallying for the right things and with the right motivations. It sure would be unseemly if it turned out that most people at yesterday’s “tea parties” were driven solely by the personal desire to pay less in taxes (who doesn’t want that?!!!), and not by a desire to see our country embark on a fiscally responsible future.

What does “a fiscally responsible future” actually mean, when it comes to the federal government? More than anything else, it means that government live within its means. And, as much as any of us hate to admit it personally, that is going to mean we end up contributing more to the government, not less.

Why is this? Our government runs vast deficits. Deficits accumulate into debt. This is not conservative. This is no different than you or I living beyond our means while our credit card balances grow ever larger.

Our federal government essentially adhered to conservative fiscal principles until 1986. Conservatives may not have liked government adding Social Security in the 1930s, massive road construction projects in the 1950s, or Medicare in the 1960s. But, the government paid its bills. Whatever we as a society decided our government should do, we paid for it. Between 1932 and 1980, the top federal income tax rate ranged between 63% and 92% (with a brief bump to 94% during WWII). It was a period of tremendous growth and prosperity in America. When Jimmy Carter left office at the beginning of 1981, federal debt stood at a modest $900 billion.

Then came the dawn of the Age of Tax Cutting. The top federal rate was cut to 50% in 1982, and again to 28% in 1988. It has ranged between there and 39.6% ever since. This would have been a wonderful expression of fiscal responsibly, except for one ugly fact: federal spending continued to rise unchecked: the Reagan years +7.6% annually; Bush 41 +6.7%; Clinton +3.3%; Bush 43 +6.2%. But the federal revenue is not there to support it. Beginning in the 1980s, spending up, taxes down: the federal government no longer could pay its bills.

How have we gotten by? Debt. Debt and more debt and more debt. Since 1980, our federal debt has exploded from $900 billion to $11 trillion. Our pandering politicians decided to further their own interests at the expense of our country’s financial future. They started giving us tax cuts, the political equivalent of distributing crack on the playground. It feels great to pay less taxes, and we can turn a blind eye to the giant pile of debt that builds up.

Now we have reached the point where the current deficits are so steep, and the accumulated debt is so high, that only more taxes can ever address the issue. Ask yourself this: Do you think the political leaders you sent to Congress are going to cut spending by such an astonishing amount that it balances the federal budget? And even if by some miracle that happened, what do you think is going to happen to the $11 trillion that already has been borrowed? Do you think the US is going default on its debt? No. You have to pay it. I have to pay it. There is no Chapter 7 for our government.

For these reasons, I caution people about their desire for tax cuts. Cutting taxes is our dessert. First, we have to eat our vegetables. First, we have to balance our budget and pay back our debts. Dessert will not be served for a long time.