Sunday, May 8, 2011

Not the Greatest Generation

We are not the “Greatest Generation.” During World War II, in addition to volunteering in massive numbers to serve in and support the military effort, the American people willingly submitted to gas and food rationing, bought U.S. Savings Bonds at low interest to lend the government needed cash, and elected leaders who doubled and even tripled income tax rates at some levels. By the end of the war, those earning the equivalent of $200,000 had tax rates over 50%, and the highest rate was 94%.

Americans did not rise up against an overreaching federal government. Rich people and corporations did not flee the country in droves to shelter their wealth in foreign banks. CEO’s and high earners did not stop working because, as some today suggest, why work hard  if the government is going to get the benefit? Americans were patriotic, and they were willing to make sacrifices to support the war effort.

President Obama inherited an $11 trillion national debt, $5 trillion of which accumulated during G.W. Bush’s years while Republicans held majorities in the House and Senate. There are three main reasons for the near doubling of the national debt during those years: the Bush tax cuts, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the passing of Medicare Part D without allowing the government to negotiate drug prices. Since Obama took office, all those factors continue (he wanted to end the tax cuts for high income earners, but ended up capitulating to Republicans to keep the government running). Add to that the cost of the recession in decreased tax revenues and the stimulus spending of almost a trillion dollars (one-third for additional tax cuts and credits), and you see why the debt will soon reach the current maximum allowable, or debt ceiling, of $14.2 trillion. It’s a staggering number, but so are all the numbers that led up to it. Raising the debt ceiling is a national necessity, since the thought of the United States of America defaulting on debt is…unthinkable. The debt ceiling has been routinely raised every year since the ‘60s.

George W. Bush famously told Americans to “go shopping” to support the economy during war. Republican lawmakers seem to think it is patriotic to bankrupt the United States government by depriving it of tax revenue while spending on the military. For the last several years they have screamed that one of the biggest impediments to recovery has been the “uncertainty” businesses have felt because of the possibility the tax cuts would expire for those earning over $200k (really? raising their taxes by 4.6%?). Since the new Republican majority in the House took the reins in January, they’ve done nothing but create uncertainty, first by threatening to shut down government if they did not get the spending and program cuts they demanded and now by threatening to vote against raising the debt ceiling unless they get further cuts. One has to wonder whether they actually want the economy to improve or cynically believe their political prospects are better if it doesn’t.

To great fanfare, Paul Ryan (R-WI) brought forth the Republican 2012 budget plan that purports to solve the national debt crisis. Others have detailed how radical these proposals are, cutting taxes for the rich and for corporations even more and paying for them by forcing seniors to begin paying for Medicare in ten years with a shrinking subsidy over time. It actually increases deficits in the next decade according to the Congressional Budget Office. What amazed me was that only four Republicans in the House voted against the plan (one was David McKinley, Republican from WV’s 1st district). All the rest, including Shelley Moore Capito, were willing to go on the record to vote for turning Medicare into a system that gives vouchers that partially subsidize seniors to buy private health insurance.

At the same time, the Republican leadership says that President Obama’s budget proposal which cuts the deficit with a balance of spending cuts, plans to lower health costs, and raises taxes on those earning in excess of $200,000 is a non-starter. They will defend the right of the rich to “keep their money.” No, these Republicans are not at all like the “Greatest Generation.” Their patriotism is limited to wearing flag pins and spending money on the military. Their vision of shared sacrifice is to ask corporations to give to their campaigns while they pass laws to make working people and the elderly pay.

published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail Sunday, May 8, 2011