Before I get to what this post is really about, I have to point out that the Lemonade Crisis that Jeff Cogen faced last week was a near carbon copy of the Batboy Crisis that Robert Reich, as Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, faced in 1993. An overzealous Labor Department inspector told the single-A Savannah Cardinals that having a 14-year-old batboy work past 7 at night violated child labor laws. Peter Jennings was gearing up to slam the government on World News Tonight when Reich contacted ABC, just in time (Jennings was already on the air), to say that the inspector was “off base” and that the batboy could keep his job. Sports Illustrated’s year-end roundup listed Reich’s move as one of the top ten feelgood sports moments of 1993.
So last Saturday, Oregonian columnist Anna Griffin issued a challenge to progressives, that I’d like to take up, and return. Griffin had a talk with Geoffrey Ludt, founder of the Oregon version of the Tea Party, and said that progressives ignore his genuine concern about the national debt at our peril. She says that Ludt is a true believer, who actually buys “extra cans at the grocery store, in case the United States suffers sudden mass inflation.” She says “the frustration Ludt feels is as genuine as the fiscal crisis, and distinctly bipartisan …The difference is that he'd reduce government's role, and I'd throw everything possible into public education. That means more math and science, workforce training and, yes, enhanced civics classes …On that point, he's right: We should all know more about how our government works, and why.”
Griffin’s right. We should take Ludt’s fears seriously. Right now, of course, many economists believe that deflation is a greater threat than inflation, and like Paul Krugman I’m a lot more concerned about getting people back to work than about what this year’s deficit happens to be. That’s the choice FDR made in the ‘30’s and during the war, and it worked out OK; by the ‘50’s we were paying off the debt.
But in the long term, we do have to worry about the potential for ever-rising debt. Other than in the last couple of years of Clinton, for the past three decades the Federal government has been running deficits even in allegedly good economic times. If we don’t do something, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, ten, fifteen years from now, the Federal government did just start printing money to pay the debt, touching off Weimer Germany-style inflation.
Asked whether they would prefer cutting spending or raising taxes to reduce the deficit, people preferred cutting spending by 62 to 5.
Asked whether they would support actually cutting specific services, only 17% said they would support cutting aid to the poor; 11% said they would cut Medicaid; 22% said they would cut the military; 7% said they would cut Social Security; 7% said they would cut Medicare; 12% education. The only item that a majority said to cut was foreign aid – 71% said to cut that. The next most popular item to cut was “the environment”; 29% wanted to cut spending on the environment.
Foreign aid and all environmental programs combined (including EPA, the Department of Interior, conservation programs in the Forest Service) each represents less than 1% of the Federal budget. Meanwhile, Social Security, the military, and Medicare / Medicaid combined each represents around 20% of the Federal budget. Interest on the debt is about 4%, and nothing else is even as much 3% -- transportation, veterans’ benefits, education, farm subsidies, each is between about 1% and 3%.
By the way, it is eminently clear that many of our fellow progressives aren’t aware of these figures. When I see a bumper sticker than says “trillions for war, who needs health care,” I want to leave a budget pie-chart on the windshield; I want to end the wars, but I also want people to know that the Federal government spends about as much on health care as on the military.
So we desperately need enhanced civics education – for at least three reasons:
If we are concerned about the nation’s long-term fiscal outlook, we need better information out there – because right now, voters are not prepared to support any of the measures that would be necessary to bring the debt under control.
If we are concerned about the divisiveness of our political life, better information is a potential cure. Right now, a lot of Republicans think Democrats blindly support worthless “big government,” and a lot of Democrats think that Republicans are heartless. In fact, government primarily consists of items that a majority of both Republicans and Democrats support. If that fact became widely known, maybe there’d be more of a sense that we’re all in this together. (Don’t you feel better knowing to a near certainty that a majority of the people who will vote for Chris Dudley this fall – and a majority of those who voted against Measures 66 and 67 in January - oppose cutting aid to the poor? I do.)
As progressives, we should recognize that right now, there is not, operationally, a big progressive majority – heck, only 22% support cutting military spending, and people prefer cutting spending to raising taxes by 62 to 5. But values-wise, there is, potentially, a huge progressive majority. We’re living in a country where 83% of the people don’t support cutting aid to the poor. We can’t know for sure that an electorate with a better sense of the trade-offs would all start voting consistently for progressive candidates … but it certainly seems worth a shot.
So we should take Griffin’s challenge, and her suggestion, seriously. But I’d like to throw one back at her.
Next time you talk to Geoffrey Ludt – and I hope you do – run some of the numbers by him. Ask him if he wants to cut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the military budget. If he says yes, then use your column to challenge his fellow Tea Partiers: “If you’re serious about smaller government, this is what it means.”