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.

Somewhere along the line, the inside-the-beltway debate has lost sight of the real mandate that we sent a new crop of elected officials to Washington to pursue: to provide a stable means of access to decent health care for the tens of millions who lack it.

The status quo fails vast numbers of Americans. Obviously, many millions simply lack insurance, and the problem starts right there. They are forced to rely on a costly and ineffective hodge-podge of solutions. Famously, our most expensive care-giving mechanism, emergency rooms, is used to provide basic care. Hospitals write off that bad debt and recoup the cost through higher insurance premiums on the rest of us. Or, people get themselves to a doctor, but then fail to take the expensive medication or get the follow up treatment. Health issues accumulate, and costs spiral higher still.

People fail to have insurance for a lot of reasons. Some people make too much money to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford insurance. Employers who rely upon low-paid workforces cannot remain competitive if they try to provide health insurance benefits costing $500 a month to people who make $1500 a month. Insurance companies somehow have settled on this practice of pre-existing conditions — perhaps not fully considering that, while they may avoid insuring the next unwell person, they also are retaining the current unwell person, who now cannot leave his job. Or, a person is stuck with sky-high COBRA premiums. Or simply is young and thinks herself immortal and unwilling to insure the risk of medical expenses.

Whatever all the causes, the status quo is clearly askew beyond all measure. We need only reflect on the often-repeated refrain that the US spends the most money in the world to achieve average, at best, health.

So, back to the mandate. How do we provide a stable means of access to decent health care for the tens of millions who lack it?

1. Cost containment. Without this, we cannot both provide access to all and not break the bank. But where is this in the Washington debate? Neither party in Congress is offering any clear-cut cost containment strategies. Democrats have taken taxation of health benefits off the table. Without that, the CBO says, people have no incentive to moderate consumption of healthcare. They also have taken tort reform off the table, another aspect that some analysts believe could hold down costs. Republicans are behind tort reform, but are offering nothing beyond that whatsoever, and tort reform is a small piece of the package. It’s like going on a diet by giving up sprinkles on your donuts.

2. Universal access. Forget about private versus public. One way or another, access to stable healthcare is the moral imperative here. Republican ideas are focused around helping people buy insurance by offering tax advantages for doing so. Not only does that smack of the recently exposed federal mortgage policies (which, oddly, Republicans have denounced, while advocating a nearly identical policy for healthcare — huh??), but also it fails to address the issue. The people who lack insurance skew hugely to the lower income population. These are people making $1500 to $2000 a month. Health insurance for a family of four costs $500, $600, $1000 a month. Giving a tax break worth 15% of that cost hardly puts it within reach. Democrat proposals are better in terms of access, but still will leave many millions on the outside looking in.

Here is what I wish we would hear from President Obama: “I will veto any plan which fails to provide health insurance to all Americans. This may be private, public, or a combination of both. I will veto any plan which increases the nation’s total expenditures on healthcare. Government spending may go up or down, private spending may go up or down, but the total of the two must not increase. Congress, keep working until you have a plan that fits those two simple — but devilishly challenging, I am sure — guidelines. Other than these two parameters, nothing is off limits.”

Hopefully Obama would allow lots of room for Congressional debate, within these parameters. Taxing benefits is not off limits; if healthcare spending does not increase, then by definition whatever Americans pay in taxes for it will be offset by decreased outlays in other ways. Tort reform is not off limits. Reforms of existing health insurance plans is not off limits. How about we scrap the entire costly, antiquated and ineffective VA medical system, and simply issue Medicare cards to all veterans (why do we have a whole separate healthcare system for that purpose, anyway???). How about we allow doctors to make any medical decision they wish to, but we lessen the payment when that decision is contraindicated by large-scale studies? (In other words, go ahead and get the unnecessary Caesarean section if you want to, but don’t expect your insurance company to pay more than it would for a routine delivery.)

That is to say, dig deep, be truly creative, be bold and innovative. The very worst part of this whole debate is that it is mired in staleness, mired in the dismal workings of Congress and government. But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, I venture to say, we elected President Obama precisely because he reminded us that it doesn’t have to be this way. So, Mr. President, go punch Congress in the freakin’ nose and get this right.

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.

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.

This is my open letter to the Republican Party. I need to know if you are insincerely pandering as a minority party, or if you are being serious this time.

Republicans in Congress and elsewhere have been launching a furious attack on Obama’s economic crisis plans, and his budget proposal. There are, apparently, grave concerns about the budget deficit, the level of government spending in relation to the economy as a whole, and to the inevitable build-up of the federal debt. Bloggers and the radio folk add a polemic element, calling all of this “socialist” or even “Marxist.”

Should we expect and hope that the economy will right itself over time? There is some credible thinking along those lines, but the vast majority of credible economists conclude that government intervention is necessary to shorten the duration and lessen the severity of the recession.

Should we cut taxes? Is there an argument to be made that it is in the nation’s best interests to increase the budget deficit and increase our federal debt by reducing federal tax receipts?

Should the government intervene in a more targeted way? For example, is there something narrower that should be done to end the slide in home prices, and cope with the attendant avalanche of foreclosures? Something to prompt liquidity in the credit markets? Something to ease the hardships being felt by the unemployed, the underemployed, the business owner clinging by his fingernails?

Can you explain to me the Republican budget plan that was recently announced? [http://www.gop.gov/solutions/budget/road-to-recovery-final]. If we were to vote for you now, or next time, we will we get:

  • …a budget that “cut(s) overall nondefense spending by reforming or eliminating a host of wasteful programs deemed ineffective by various government entities”?
  • …”a simple and fair tax code with a marginal tax rate for income up to $100,000 of 10 percent and 25 percent for any income thereafter, with a generous standard deduction and personal exemption”?

You controlled the White House and Congress from 2001 through 2007, and you never proposed any of this.

Your budget document calls for reducing taxes, reducing deficits and reducing federal debt. I do not understand. Doesn’t reducing taxes add to deficits and therefore debt? On the subject of debt, you write, “The debt held by the public will exceed 50 percent of GDP this year and increase to 82 percent of GDP ten years from now. History tells us what governments do with such levels of debt and what happens to their citizens.” In fact, almost $9 trillion of the current $11 trillion of federal debt came under Republican presidents. Is this a change of heart on your part?

Can you explain to me your party’s support of bailouts in September 2008, and your opposition to them now?

Finally, can you provide me with an honest reckoning of this: How much of the Obama spending is an unfortunate necessity, arising from the huge spending increases, deficit and debt growth, off-budget spending on the Iraq war, and credit market oversight laxness of the last ten years?

In short, convince me that your President right now wouldn’t be doing exactly the same things, given current economic conditions and your party’s own history of reckless spending.

Thanks. I’ll be looking forward to your reply.

There is no reason to be surprised by the dustup between Rush Limbaugh and Michael Steele. Rush is and always has been a voice of the conservative sphere. Republicans are not and never have been a conservative organization.

What has happened is that, as the Republican Party has been blasted into the political wilderness, the few survivors are limping back to the conservative fold, like a 35-year-old man, divorced and jobless, limps backs to his parents’ house.

That this causes tension should be no surprise, because the Republican Party has never been a voice for the American conservative movement. Not under GW Bush, not under GHW Bush, not even under the venerated President Reagan.

If one examines fiscal conservatism, those ideals call for fiscal discipline and limiting the scope of federal government. No Republican president or Congressional leadership has ever embodied that. Every time we have put Republicans in charge, they have voted for increased spending and growth in the federal government. Even sanctified Reagan presided over 7.1% average federal spending growth (not counting defense spending, which rose even faster), and added 2.8% to federal employment during his terms in office.

Fiscally, Republicans have succeeded in isolating one lonely plank — tax cuts — and have acted as if that is the sole definition of conservatism. In practical terms, this means that Republican leadership has produced rapid spending growth coupled with lower tax revenue, resulting inescapably in a vast explosion of federal debt. Of the $11 trillion in federal debt, more than 80% occurred under Reagan and the Bushes. There is nothing fiscally disciplined about the Republican Party.

As for “social conservatism,” the Republican Party fares hardly any better. The cornerstone of social conservatism is a hands-off approach from government in the lives of private citizens. But that ideology is hideously perverted by Republicans. They seek for the federal government to have the loudest voice in terms of abortion rights, gay marriage, drug laws, stem cell research, “intelligent design,” and any number of social issues. Ask Terri Schiavo’s husband about the Republican Party’s commitment to social conservative principles.

No wonder the leader of the conservative movement and the leader of the Republican Party cannot get along.