Phil-osophically Speaking – April 22, 2011

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Living Within Our Means: The Impossible Dream

President Obama’s speech, at George Washington University, regarding Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan’s deficit reduction plan underscores the Administration’s insouciance and ho-hum flippancy in marshaling efforts to control spending. The president’s plan does little more than add a coat of paint to a building crumbling at its very foundation. Obama sought not so much to correct as to disembowel Ryan’s budget, calling it, in effect, un-American by its attempt to change the social compact that has been a staple of American society since the New Deal. Stark images of traumatized, white-haired grannies, pauperized school districts and a distressed working class flood the airwaves, dramatizing the impact of such cuts. It is as if Republicans had taken a rusted hacksaw to the body politic, pitilessly sawing off the green limbs of life.

Meanwhile, as the “What would Jesus cut” chorus sings its refrain with such maudlin sentimentality, we are blinded to the fact that even under the Republican reduction plan of spending $6.2 trillion less over the next 10 years, health spending will still rise for Medicaid, which ministers to the poor, and Medicare, which serves seniors. None of this seems to deflate the pontifical tone of the president; as if his presidency was the upshot of a coronation rather than one subject to a quadrennial election. When Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, welcomed the self-regarding Noah Webster to Philadelphia, the lexicographer replied, “Sir, you may congratulate Philadelphia on the occasion.” I get that same uneasy feeling about the president ever since he arrived at the Capitol with such illustrious fanfare.

Yet, amid all the blustering pedantry about the nature of the American compact, there licking its chops is the immediacy and grandiosity of unprecedented numbers surging forth on oceans of red ink. Stoking class warfare by pitting billionaires and millionaires against the working classes with all the compulsive abandon that sectarian unilateralism can muster, can crawl only so far; at the end of the day the facts are still the facts. Marinating partisanship in the wine of ideology inebriates but it does not illuminate; for while it’s true that all facts in politics are selected facts, it would nonetheless take an inexhaustible conceit, a prodigious act of human infatuation to deny the incontrovertible forces associated with unchecked spending as it would to believe that the feeble and insipid measures the White House proposes will arrest the escalating debt crisis.

Soaking the rich is a venerated and time-honored populist hallucination that sustains itself on the idea that the truth that survives is the lie pleasantest to believe. The time is coming, however, where our self-induced delirium will be rudely awakened by a cold shower of reality: According to data from the IRS the entire taxable income of everyone earning over $100,000 was approximately $1.582 trillion. Even if those Americans were taxed at 100 percent, it wouldn’t eliminate this year’s deficit much less the mountain of debt already accumulated; so much for the idea that taxing the rich is the aspirin that will dissolve our fiscal migraine.

We forget that the world is older than yesterday; without assaying into a detailed economic history, suffice it to say that raising the highest tax rates to increase revenues has been repeatedly tried and has repeatedly failed. With an aging population, only structural changes to entitlements can alter the course of this runaway locomotive heading headlong over a steep cliff. The answer to our debt woes is to cut the rate of these astronomic expenditures and grow the economy; it is not another spending spectacle cloaked in the seductive guise of Obamacare. Government, after all, is a carnivorous animal, feasting on its favorite red meat, the sebaceous adipose of taxpayer’s hides, masticating even its bones into powdered dust.  

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s all-time best-selling novel, presciently diagnosed these very public dispositions bedeviling us today. Devoid of any Panglossian sheen, the book’s narrative tells of economic collapse from massive government expansion into the private sphere where it extends insupportable welfare benefits to the middle class who, on Election Day, are summoned like puppets thereby perpetuating, by benevolent solicitude, a politically dependent class in service of a political aristocracy. This nightmarish vision of government mandarins weakening the economy only to demand more power to fix the problem they created is frighteningly contemporary.

Rand’s philosophy, for sure, is to be tasted rather than swallowed, for while her hypertrophied intellect is riveting, her philosophical cold-bloodedness, amoral solipsism and undisguised misanthropy is decidedly unappealing. But as a crusader for freedom, there is no gainsaying her heroic credentials. She spares no one, including big business that parlays capitalism as a justification for corporate welfare. This certainly mirrors real life: If a handout from Washington is to be had, corporate lobbyists materialize like brothels around a gold strike. As the Austrian analyst Willi Schamm trenchantly observed: “The problem with Socialism is Socialism and the problem with Capitalism is Capitalists.”

The Constitution gives sole responsibility to the House of Representatives for originating and approving appropriations and taxes. From snout to tail, Congress has been a notoriously invertebrate beast caving in to special interests that see the Federal Government as their personal ATM. Now that they are showing spine, will the American taxpayer support their efforts? There is reason to believe that in championing this agenda, the GOP is risking an electoral backlash. Clearly, notions of the social compact eroding under Republican ideologues is preposterous since, as noted elsewhere, the U.S. will be spending more on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid over the next 10 years than it had the previous 10. The Ryan plan, far from being the nemesis of America’s social safety net, may be its savior.

Nevertheless, the political flotilla, an Armada also known as the “Committee to Re-elect President Obama” has set sail, and with flags waving is prepared to spend upwards of a billion dollars to fastidiously target those voters most vulnerable to redistributionist myths and the black arts of demagoguery: Meaning the poor, the partially educated and the youthfully educated who have shown a remarkable anatomical fortitude to swallow whole, the rhetorical oeuvre of liberal shibboleths, salted and filleted, without a pang of indigestion.  

In the midst of such cannonading and color bursting rockets illuminating the sky of this “Brave New World” of entitlement spending, what chance does a little old-fashioned advice of “living within your means” have? But then, you just never know.     

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