A New Kind of Robber Barron in Washington

Rahm Emmanuel once famously said that he would never let a good crisis go to waste. Only in an emergency can the American people be convinced to allow some kind of drastic change; otherwise, the majority prefers change to plod along at a more manageable pace. So, how does a politician convince his constituents that their unemployment problem is less important than the debt problem? He manufactures a crisis, or blows a temporary problem out of proportion. That’s what Republican governors are doing across the country as they force workers to abandon half a century of labor protections. That’s also what Paul Ryan, the new and eager chairman of the House Budget Committee, is doing right now with his morally repugnant long-term plan to allegedly solve our looming debt crisis.

As I wrote in my last column, we do not have a debt crisis. We do have a massive budget deficit and our debt has skyrocketed, but the slow recovery from the recession should take precedence. A strong and growing economy will get us out of that mess far more quickly than the kinds of massive cuts that Ryan and other extremists salivate over on their way to work every morning.

Even if you accept that we need to act quickly to reduce long-term government spending, one look at Ryan’s plan reveals that it will address no such issue. By turning Medicaid into a series of block grants, by completely dismantling Medicare so that seniors have to buy far more expensive private insurance, by gutting the Pell grants that help poor students afford a first-class education, by cutting back on the food stamps used by an ever-growing segment of the population and through a draconian series of other cuts, he would indeed cut $5.8 trillion in long-term spending.

In Ryan’s eyes, the money from those cuts can have only one destination: the wealthy. His plan would use the vast majority of the $5.8 trillion that he allegedly intended to subtract from the debt and instead use it to fund the GOP’s out-of-control fetish for tax cuts. These tax cuts would make the Bush tax cuts look tiny in comparison. The top income tax rate — once 91 percent under our secretly Socialist President Eisenhower — will fall from 35 to 25 percent. Corporations will receive greater tax cuts. The total amount of Ryan’s savings that will go to tax cuts is $5 trillion, meaning that a proposal that’s pitched as solving our deficit could actually only diminish long-term deficits by $800 billion at the cost of restructuring the American economy in one of the worst possible ways.

There’s ample reason to doubt even this figure. It turns out that to reach these savings, government discretionary spending must magically shrink from 12 percent to 3.5 percent of GDP after all of the other cuts. Ryan does not say how this will be achieved, but significant decreases in defense spending are of course not part of the proposal. Even more bizarrely, he also relies on a projected unemployment rate in 2021 of less than three percent. As the rate is currently hovering under nine percent, this would require a literally unprecedented boom in the American economy. Although his proposal is short on details, I can only imagine he reaches this number either by assuming that the people who can no longer afford health care will simply die off or he plans to toss the unemployed into prison.

That such a proposal would make its way into the highest levels of the American government is a sad testament to the success of the far right. Soon, thinking Republicans like Olympia Snowe or Susan Collins will have vanished from the ranks of the GOP. The party of Michele Bachmann, John Boehner and Paul Ryan would dismiss Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon and even Reagan as “liberal.”

It is uniquely depressing, disgusting and shameful that men like Paul Ryan can look at this country and decide that, in a time when the wealthiest one percent of Americans receive nearly a quarter of the nation’s income, the rich are not rich enough and the poor are too well off. I can only hope that the next election cycle will sweep this new generation of political robber barons from power.

How I Fixed the Federal Deficit

A heavy knock on the door startled me as I sat at my desk the other night, wallowing through a lengthy problem set.

“Come in,” I yelled, and then returned to my work. When I noticed my visitors I nearly fell out of my seat. President Barack Obama stood in my doorway, flanked by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). In the hallway, standing on his tiptoes and looking like a turtle with big glasses was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

“Mr. President!” I gasped. Behind me, I heard a tap on my window. There stood House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), jumping up and down, struggling to see inside. Boehner strode past me and pulled my curtains shut.

“Ignore Nancy,” he said. He reached into my fridge for a bottle of wine — by which, of course, I mean grape juice — and poured a generous amount into a glass that was definitely not stolen from Ross Dining Hall. He let out a deep sigh, full of longing for times past. “We’ve got a problem,” he said to me. A solitary tear ran down his orange cheek.

Obama scornfully handed Boehner a tissue. “What he means to say is that we need your help. We just can’t agree on this budget, and Harry here says you’re the one to fix it.”

“Well, I don’t know about that, sir…”

“So tomorrow, we are endowing you with the power to take whichever steps you deem necessary to fix this budget crisis. We all pledge to support whatever plan you come up with.  Even Mitch agrees to support it.”  Obama reached out to shake my hand. “Good luck, Zach.” He snapped his fingers and they all disappeared in a flash of red, white and blue light.

Once in charge of fixing the budget crisis, my first step was to repeal the Bush tax cuts, restoring $3.7 trillion of revenue to the government over the next 10 years. I decided that we would bring the war in Afghanistan to the quickest possible end and stop throwing money at contractors when American troops could do the job just as well. I increased the age at which the elderly could receive Social Security benefits from 65 to 70 — except for those who could qualify for hardship benefits — and decided to phase out payouts for wealthy retirees entirely. When that law was first passed, average life expectancy was 62. Now that it’s more like 78, this seems not only necessary but also fair.

With the more obvious adjustments taken care of, I moved on to look at the harder choices. I found a few billion dollars in the government’s discretionary spending fund, but that was only a tiny chunk of the federal budget so I moved on to defense spending — always the first target of a liberal looking for some budget savings — and started by canceling a lot of expensive weapons that were under development.

Then, in a copy of Time Magazine to which I subscribed purely for Joel Stein’s column, I saw an article about the deficit. One of the things about a recession is that government revenue dries up pretty quickly, exploding the size of the deficit. Because of the economic climate, current debt projections are based on an anemic 2.8 percent growth rate in our GDP. In February, however, the Federal Reserve predicted that the economy will grow at a rate of 3.9 percent in 2011. At that rate, the annual deficit should shrink from $1.4 trillion today to a measly $113 billion by 2021.

I grasped the solution that seems to have been missed by most of the media. Massive cuts such as the House Republican budget plan that would lead to the loss of 700,000 more jobs are totally unnecessary.

So, I restored most of the weapons programs, because making weapons is what we do best. Someone has to fill that role; and have you ever seen an F-35 or a Reaper drone? The awesomeness makes them well worth the money, and the military drives a lot of technological innovation that makes its way into the civilian world in ways most of us would not imagine. The same company makes bomb-defusing robots in Iraq and dust bunny-diffusing robots back home.

I did, however, tell the manufacturers that they needed to stop writing “made in the USA” on all the weapons we’d be selling to repressive regimes. (Quick: Are the former protestors in Egypt more or less likely to buy American because of an advertisement stamped on the tear gas canisters that bombarded them?)

I changed U.S. trade laws to prohibit the importation of products made with child labor or in sweatshops.  Suddenly, our manufacturers had a fighting chance. Sure, prices at Wal-Mart went up a little. But for the first time in a generation, wages for the middle and working classes began to rise. On the strength of a revolution in green manufacturing jobs, our trade deficit shrank and GDP growth increased. We were pushing a 4.5 percent growth rate.

The deficit was vanishing into history and I wanted more, so we used our awesome military technology and annexed Canada for its resources. This caused a bit of an uproar in the Canadian press, but when we decided to adopt their healthcare system, they settled down and were actually pretty nice “aboot” the whole thing.