Friday, January 2, 2009
Rock. Place (hard).
The deficits run up by George Bush and his Republican congress, even before the so-called bailout (more properly: the unfettered giveaway, with no strings, to the usual beneficiaries of Republican fiscal policy, disregarding the greater good, continuing the discredited delusion -- even Greenspan finally figured it out -- that "markets," ie fat cats, will do the right thing) are appalling. The last two years haven't been much better. Balanced budgets, as a matter of principle, are a long-term necessity, far as I can tell. "Families must balance budgets," we are told, "so why not government?" Despite the fact that the two -- government and family -- are in no way comparable, I agree.
Other than dead-enders like Boehner and McConnell (obstructionists for its own sake, it would appear) and Sanford, out of whose cold dead hands Reagan mythology will never be pried, virtually everyone agrees some sort of mega-stimulus is required in these times. Details, a few billion here or there, are rightfully in dispute. But not the central idea. So the question is, ma nishtana ha government ha zeh michol ha other governments? (Apologies to anyone who actually knows Hebrew: I'm taking a wild swing here.) Why is the federal government different from other governments?
What's going on in state governments is instructive. Most require, by state law, balanced budgets. No exceptions for exceptional times. Thus we observe, in California, the nub of the problem: they're screwed. It's about the same, but to a lesser degree, in my state, and in virtually every state with budget requirements so mandated. In hard times, it's the very programs most likely to help turn things around that get cut: education, help for the needy, infrastructure. Yet raising money via taxes seems similarly counter-productive. What are governors to do? Make things worse, through no fault of their own.
Already, there are consequences, with more on the way, undoubtedly.
To my eye, Ronald Reagan screwed us when he was alive, and he's doing it still, from the grave: California never recovered from Prop 13. States that bought into his philosophy (more likely, that of those who whispered into his hollow ear) are now reaping the sour harvest. If it's right, under dire circumstances, for the federal government to spend more than it has, why isn't it so for the states? Even those valued families, when the chips are down, have to. Hard times call for hard times.
From what little I know, a significant part of Obama's stimulus will be in the form of money given to states; maybe not exactly in the form of cash, but in grants for specific "shovel-ready" (look for that one on end-of-year lists of phrases whose disappearance is hoped for) projects. Isn't there a certain amount of charade in that? If states can accept such money -- printed money adding to the amount we all owe to the future -- why the fiction of balanced budget? In effect, it's a pretense that "conservative" economics still are a worthy construct. "Cut spending," said Sanford, above. "Screw 'em," is what he means.
If it's true -- I don't know myself, but I'm easily impressed by Nobel Prizes -- that the idea of low taxes and deregulation and (theoretically) less government as the answer to every economic question is now thoroughly discredited, then why is there this residue across the states? Stuck in the middle with no good answers, governors are having to choose between two wrongs: cut services essential to recovery, take money out of people's hands by raising taxes. All in the name of failed economics.
If my surgical practice had been carried out like the economic practices of the last few decades, not changing when the data demanded it, I'd have been defrocked long since. Sued into submission. Run out of town. My errors would have been shouted in the halls of every hospital whose corridors I'd trod.
But then, surgery is about reality. Not to mention helping people; getting things done.
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