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Don Bigly and the Budget of Doom

Mathematically incoherent. Cruel and unusual. Just plain dumb. All apt descriptors of the new budget proposal by the Trump Administration.

The budget proposes to cut all sorts of things for no good reason. If this were the product of a federal contractor, they would be ripe for a suit under the False Claims Act for defrauding the government by providing a work that missed the mark so widely it could only be intentional.

Without going into detail (I like to keep this blog to a strictly R rating), this budget may qualify as obscenity. It certainly appeals to the prurient interest of certain partisans, and it does depict an excretory function in a patently offensive way (i.e., through numbers). It is unclear whether it holds any value.

But the Republican legislators largely acknowledge it’s another bad deal by the king of bad deals. Even the White House gave that fact a nod. So why put this forward? Under the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 (31 USC) they have to submit a budget.

This is another pro forma, half-assed attempt by this president. Instead of coming up with something that tries to strike a balance, tries to set the legislature on the path to a real deal, to real progress, he just has his under-equipped staff of loyalists throw together whatever they want, and then he will say it’s the greatest thing ever.

Every presidency has missed opportunities, but for an unlikely presidency such as this, there seem to be no real attempts to hit anything. The budget doesn’t define any real goal. It doesn’t say that some programs are priorities. It says they’re all liabilities and we should just cut everything. Republicans like to talk about tough choices, but in practice that seems to be saying no to everything.

No to weather models and no to cancer research. No to SNAP, but also no to trade assistance. The tough choice this president offers is “no” or “no.”

America’s Budget Solution

Premise that we wouldn’t have much of a government budget crisis if the government would just do its job.

So-called sequestration began yesterday. That turn of law entailed cutting the government’s discretionary budget across the board, and served as an alternative to the government deciding how to reduce the budget deficit.

For how boring the media painted it (as if the federal budget made runner-up for Carlin’s famous Seven Words (Wikipedia: Seven dirty words)), the sequestration grew from a laudable history in action films: the time bomb. They gave themselves months and months of fuse, but still could not defuse that sucker.

But did they really try? Sure, they tried to trace the red wire and green wire. Which one was the ground? Is that the primary charge? They tried a few specialist bomb squads, with the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (Wikipedia: National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, aka the Simpson-Bowles commission) and the Gang of Six, but the best they could decide was to take a weed-whacker to the bomb and hope for the best.

I think they even called up their friends at the Military-Industrial Complex, asking for a drone, a robot, some sort of sniffing dog, anything.

They never tried doing their job. That was the problem. If they would merely do their job, to legislate based on the facts, not based on the whims of special interests and lobbyists, we would be done with this sort of time-bomb nonsense.

How do I figure? You have this notion that the government is fine except it costs too much. Or in the case of the Republicans, it’s also too big and smells bad. But that’s not the truth. There are structural changes needed, both large and small, to a variety of programs and laws. The tax code, health care, retirement, prisons, financial regulation, welfare, environmental protection, agriculture, military contracting, immigration, communications, energy, infrastructure…

But they aren’t addressing them. They’re trying to put the cart so far before the horse, the horse hasn’t been born yet. Either they are naive enough to not know that major work is yet to be done in the ongoing mission to perfect our government, or they don’t plan on being the ones to do it. In either case, they show their ineptitude.

Worse, it’s highly likely that if they would begin to address these structural deficits instead of the mere fiscal one, the deficit they’re so enamored with would shrink enough to make it an easy fix.

Fix the tax code, for example, and the revenue picture changes drastically. Fix health care, the deficit picture changes too. Fix immigration, the economy improves.

The broken structures of our system are akin to inflammation in the body. In recent years more and more medical studies have shown the detrimental role of inflammation in overall health. The body expends energy to try to keep the chronic problems in check, which leaves other systems vulnerable.

It reminds me of the film Synecdoche, New York, the character Hazel purchases a house that’s on fire. If you lived in a house that was on fire, you would never get around to dusting or mopping, because you’d spend all your spare time keeping the fire under control. That’s the nature of our current system of government. That’s the attitude our government has taken: we can’t fix anything, we have to keep the fire in check. But they can’t put it out, because the disarray of the remainder of the house continuously stokes the fire.

The media, for their part, scarcely bother with tough, basic questions. Like, “why aren’t you guys governing anymore, but you haven’t resigned?” Or, “are you planning to retire anytime soon?”

Oh well. A fire can’t last forever. Either it will burn the whole mess down and we’ll just start over, or maybe they’ll eventually go back to governing and we can watch the fire die from lack of viewership.

Fiscal Cliff

Overview of the fiscal cliff.

With the election done, the question turns to the approaching crisis of budget, taxes, and social programs.

Back in June, 2001 the Congress lowered tax rates. Again in 2003. Together these actions comprised the Bush Tax Cuts. Set to expire in 2010 (at the time of passage, it was thought (or claimed to have been thought) that larger reform would be accomplished by then), they have been extended to the end of 2012. And there’s currently no deal to extend them further, leading to a situation whereby tax rates revert to their former levels (which can be sneakily called rate hikes).

Budget sequestration. Enacted in August of 2011. This is the set up to a perverse game of chicken, in which the Democrats and Republicans tie themselves together and race headlong at the cliff, and if either fails to turn away in time, we all go over.

All of the non-exempt departmental budgets will be cut by a quarter-percent.

But what is the cliff itself? It is a combination of lower revenues from the tax cuts, which created the trench, and increasing costs/outlays, creating the ramp. We’re moving along a curve, and come the end of the year (technically the cliff hits in a more nuanced way), the curve drops off and the trench closes up as revenues increase due to rates returning to normal.

It’s not really as much of a cliff as a ramp. Into a revenue wall.

The fear is that the turmoil of decreased government spending, coupled with increase pressure from taxes, will lead to a recession.

All of this is overshadowed by the larger fear that the government no longer functions properly, and won’t deal with the underlying causes of the cliff in a meaningful manner.

That is, between the military budget, Social Security, Medicare, and the broken tax code, we face long-term debt and deficit issues that impact our ability to adhere to our values.

The Republicans believe that we should cut the government down to size, except for the military.

The Democrats believe we should raise revenues through tax increases.

In many ways, the entire cliff is built out of the same sort of crisis the Republican party should be going through in the wake of the 2012 election. They have shown an inability to adjust their values to the modern world. They weren’t willing to take up immigration reform when it was their own president, George W. Bush, pushing for it. They continue to try to enact draconian measures against women, including efforts to block access to contraception and abortion.

We face a similar crisis of values. Our military is too large. Our prisons are too full. Our tax system offers perverse incentives. Our medical system uses misguided payment arrangements such as fee-for-service. And so on.

Big military replaced the value of security. Big prisons replaced the value of justice. Tax loopholes replaced the value of government by the people. Fee-for-service and similar money-first schemes replaced the value of pursuit of happiness.

Reelection and career politician replaced the value of government of the people.

Our underlying values are still strong, but their weak counterparts, their value-for-dummies equivalents, are detriments to the functioning of our system.

The supposed traditionalists, the Republicans, are not calling for a return to our true, core values. But the Democrats are silent on most of them as well (notable exceptions being things like equality under the law when they call for recognition of marriage).

In the end, it’s unclear whether the fiscal cliff will scare the congresscritters into action.