There are many reasons to be dismayed by last week’s federal budget crisis. But perhaps the most concerning aspect is that the debate wasn’t even really about the budget. The real sticking point in the negotiations was funding for Planned Parenthood and the Environmental Protection Agency. Now, we can, and should, deride the Republican party for dangling the country over a precipice in pursuit of goals that ought to have been pursued through social legislation, but I think this misses the bigger point.
The United States finds itself in a precarious financial situation because, simply put, our politicians lack the courage to properly budget. The last decade proves that restoring revenue through increased taxation has become political anathema. Some of this resistance is surely due to the misguided philosophy that tax cuts for the wealthy drive job growth. Stephen Colbert even humorously quipped that with respect to General Electric, which generated $14.2 billion in profit yet paid nothing in taxes last year, we should lower their tax rate yet further so that they can create even more jobs, which, even if mathematically possible, would likely be overseas anyway. But I suspect that even more resistance is due to politicians’ desire to please their most important (i.e. wealthiest) campaign donors. Given our present situation, this reluctance is particularly pernicious. There is no excuse for a politician who fails to fight for necessary reforms because of fear that doing so might cost them their chair.
Yet it is these ill-placed notions that disintegrate the notion of American investment. A grade schooler can tell you that you’re better off saving money than borrowing. In a few years they’d even show you the simple mathematics. When you rack up a debt to the extent that 1/8 of your federal budget is dedicated to interest payments, you have a serious problem. The facts lay bare that our current political establishment lacks the ability for long term fiscal planning, which returns me to the original point on Planned Parenthood and the EPA.
Both programs are designed in large part for the long-term good. Every dollar spent on family planning saves about $4 that would otherwise need to be spent on Medicare for children and other assistance. (In Texas, for example, about 60% of births are financed by Medicaid.) The EPA aims to mitigate the effects of climate change, which is already wreaking havoc throughout the world in the form of record high temperatures, earlier Springs and associated species die-offs, drought, flooding, mass migrations, etc. A study places the health and environmental benefits of the Clean Air Act between 1970 and 1990 at $21.4 trillion. Similar arguments can be made about funding for our premier scientific agencies like NSF, NASA, NIH, and NIST, which all serve as drivers for future growth. The simple truth is small cuts now cost big dollars later. We’ve become a nation that is pennywise and pound-foolish.
This isn’t about the budget. It never was. If it were, there would be serious plans on the table to reduce our #1 driver of debt, Medicare expenses. More on that another day, but for now, let’s hold our government accountable for caring too much about where we’ll be in November 2012 and not enough on where we’ll be in 2032.