Blurred Lines of the Budget Debate

Multi-generational family kissingThe title of the undisputed hit song of this past summer, before the government shutdown, Blurred Lines,* lacks a reference to Congress (or rest assured it would have been a dud). But it captures what politicians and others in Washington have done in the hopes that voters don’t catch them causing damage to our lives and the broader economy.

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Last week economist and former Obama administration official Jared Bernstein wrote in the New York Times Economix blog that “the federal government spends way too much time on fiscal policy to the exclusion of everything else.”  Former Clinton Secretary of Labor Robert Reich says “Our biggest problem is the decline of the middle class and increasing ranks of the poor.”  This week CNN is out with a new poll stating that 71% of Americans believe economic conditions are poor.  So why, as Congress trudged through their government shutdown and a countdown to default, did so many in Washington do their best to blur the lines of truth about what could help jump start our economy?

Since the shutdown ended the lines have gotten even blurrier.  Below are three areas of blurred line logic we expect to see created by creatures of Washington as we head in to another fiscal battle, while Congress spends even less time paying attention to real issues that most Americans are facing.

One: Phony Generational Angst

A group of billionaires who claim to care about Social Security and Medicare have taken to college campuses to say that kids need to stand up to older Americans.  And we’re not talking about lovable dinner table banter like “When I was your age, we had it so hard.”

The Washington Post uses the headline “Another billionaire is predicting doom. Ignore him. These wealthy guys have been falsely claiming that America spends more money on older folks than on younger folks and that younger folks should rebel.  They’ve completely blurred the lines and some in the media have bought in.  Though they may be quite wealthy through smart investing, the billionaires have conveniently left out the statistic showing that spending on older Americans and younger Americans remains about evenly split.  Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times calls the “generational theft” line of thinking “a fundamental piece of a decades-long campaign to distract Americans into thinking that the threat to their way of life comes from a war of old against young, rather than an intra-generational class war in which the vast majority of economic gains from improvements in worker’s productivity has flowed to the wealthy, not to the workers.”

This week the Center for American Progress released a new report about creating an economic agenda for millennials and younger Americans.  One of the six concerns, of course, is improving retirement security, which makes a whole lot of sense because millennials don’t have the same options that their parents and grandparents had – especially given the continuing disappearance of pensions.

As older Americans struggle to stay in the middle class, their grandchildren and children may be trying to gain a foothold.  But if Social Security benefits get cut, and millennials have no pensions, they’ll end up struggling even more when they grow older than older folks are struggling now.

AARP research shows that “Americans of all ages suffered during the recession. Older Americans, however, have relatively little time to recover from job loss, stock market losses, declining housing values, or having tapped into and possibly having exhausted their savings. Their ability to retire as planned and with the resources they had been counting on may have been jeopardized.”

The Center for American Progress report says that “Young people who have jobs are struggling to make ends meet with low wages, nonexistent benefits, and poor job security.”

Both of these arguments ought to point us to the fact that we’re in this together.  Grandchildren don’t begrudge their grandparents or parents for wanting to retire.  On the other side of the coin grandparents want to see their children and grandchildren succeed.  One way for us all to succeed includes having stronger, adequate earned benefits, not weaker ones because billionaires claim that we mustn’t like people who aren’t our own age. 

Two: The Vaudeville Act of Simpson and Bowles

Like a failed vaudeville routine with nothing else to do but tour and hope people keep listening to them, we’ll keep seeing the wannabe Social Security cutting comedy duo of Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles.  These two men front a committee that has only Wall Street CEOs as their “grassroots” army.  They want to cut our Social Security and Medicare and will say anything to get people to believe this is the only way we can fix our nation’s fiscal mess and provide for our children.

The media love them because they use blurred line analogies to make it seem like they really care about our nation’s fiscal health.  But these guys have consistently railed against Social Security and Medicare because they don’t really care about the real issues we face.  A few years ago, Alan Simpson called Social Security a “milk cow” followed by an expletive.  The only thing these two keep milking are sad laughs.  Their ideas to cut Social Security are dangerous.  If the enemies of Social Security succeed in cutting one of America’s successful programs, it will in part be due to the ill-informed, insensitive humor of Wall Street’s paid vaudeville routine.

Three: “Let’s Make a Deal” Misguided Logic

There’s a type of groupthink happening among many of Washington’s elite right now.  That groupthink points to a sense that we’ve got to do something to cut our nation’s deficit and that means cutting programs important to most Americans.  The people that have participated in this groupthink have also been known to utter phrases like “adult conversations,” “tough choices,” “we all need to make sacrifices,” and “there’s nothing more important than the deficit.”  Many of these people wouldn’t suffer at all if critical programs for the middle class saw cuts in any deal.  The reasons they haven’t been talking as much about fixing the economy as they have about the deficit isn’t too much of a mystery, but it’s fodder for another blog post.  However, the “tough choices” they recommend wouldn’t cause them to “sacrifice” their way of life the way it would cause most middle class families to make sacrifices in their own lives.

Those who want to disrupt or harm successful programs like Social Security and Medicare may use blurred line language to advance their efforts.  But elected officials know that if voters ever get to see the lines clearly, they won’t let politicians get away with such nonsense.  Some have wondered why Congress can’t craft compromises like they used to.  But if they can’t even agree on the issues that ought to be relevant, how can they come to any sort of compromise?

Clear Lines

In response to a question about trading budget spending for cuts to Social Security last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said “It is the most successful social program in the history of the world. The program is not about to go broke, so take it easy on Social Security.”

Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN) said in the Wall Street Journal that “We simply will not abide chained CPI.  It’s a hard ‘No.’ ”

If more Democrats and Republicans would take the same stance, then maybe we could all sit down and have an adult conversation like the one Mr. Reid and other people who understand that Social Security is not even part of the budget, believe we ought to have.  There’s nothing blurry about that.

*DISCLAIMER: Though this song’s meaning has been discussed at length, and some have called it misogynistic, this blog post is in no way a promotion of the song, which needs no further promotion than its many weeks at the top of the charts.  I personally believe it to be a pretty obvious Marvin Gaye rip off with nonsensical lyrics and a catchy beat.

ACA = Affordable Care Act = Obamacare






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