Thursday, January 28, 2010

Everybody's talkin', Part 2

The other big subject of conversation the past couple of days has been the announcement that President Hopey-Changey is proposing a three-year spending freeze on discretionary domestic spending - with increases limited to the rate of inflation thereafter. In all the discussion of the possible reasons why he's doing it - from political pant-wetting in the wake of the Massachusetts election to some naive belief in the chimera of "bipartisanship" to genuine commitment to just dumb-assery - I think there is one key quote that has been missed.

Note first, however and just for the record, that a spending freeze actually means a service cut: Over the past five years (2005-2009), the annual inflation rate has ranged from a low of 2.7% to a high of 3.8%. So for the moment, assume that over the next three years, inflation averages 3.2%, just below the mid-point of that range. A three-year freeze would thus equate to a 9.6% cut in real terms, that is, in terms of the ability of affected programs to deliver services.

Leave that aside for now since the White House insists that it's not an "across the board" freeze, that some programs will see increases and others cuts, creating a net "freeze," and the actual budget numbers won't be available for a few more days. But do keep in the back of your mind that "spending freeze" by definition means "service cuts."

The domestic discretionary part of the federal budget is about one-eighth the total budget and the WH has promised to save about $250 billion over 10 years with this "freeze" - which is peanuts compared to the deficit projected to accumulate over that same time. About three percent of it, in fact. An amount small enough that already some of the people with who some say he is trying to connect, such as Blue Dog Dems, have bad-mouthed it as obviously inadequate and GOPpers, to what should be no one's surprise, have openly mocked it.

So you've got a proposal that will tick off a variety of constituencies who will be hit with cuts, will further anger an already disgusted and distressed base by exempting everything involved with killing people and restricting liberties (even though they account for more than half the total discretionary budget), will not impress or engage political opponents, and will not even accomplish anything meaningful in its own terms. So why in heaven's name do it?

That's where that missed quote comes in. One thing I expect everyone would agree on is that, assuming both that deficit reduction is a necessity and that military and "national security" spending is off the table, the only areas big enough to make a difference are the major entitlement programs: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Which brings us to the quote:
[O]ne administration official said that limiting the much smaller discretionary domestic budget would have symbolic value. That spending includes lawmakers’ earmarks for parochial projects, and only when the public believes such perceived waste is being wrung out will they be willing to consider reductions in popular entitlement programs, the official said.

“By helping to create a new atmosphere of fiscal discipline, it can actually also feed into debates over other components of the budget,” the official said, briefing reporters on the condition of anonymity.
Bingo. The purpose is not to actually do anything about deficits, it's to convince enough people that they're serious enough about reducing the deficit, and that the need to reduce the deficit is serious enough, to lay the groundwork for attacking Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid - particularly, I predict, the latter because it's beneficiaries are poor people who lack political clout.

Happily, on Tuesday the Senate failed to overcome a filibuster against, thus killing, the move for Congress to essentially cede its responsibility for federal budgets to an appointed "budget commission" whose package of proposals would receive an up or down, now or never, "take it or leave it" vote with no amendments. That still leaves the O-man's (I keep wanting to call him "The Big O" but that's already taken and deservedly so) intention to establish his own commission, which won't have any legislative authority but still is a convenient means to push the "necessity" of slashing large - and quite successful, which is why the bozos and bankers, along with the reactionary greedheads, hate them - social programs.

Do not doubt for a minute that this is, ultimately, at root, what is behind the whole range of screeching rants about "unsustainable deficits" and "long-term stability" and assorted similar crap designed to trap us into accepting the inevitability of withered public programs. I recall hearing this same shouted refrain since the Carter administration, for pity's sake, a persistence across time and economic circumstance (here, for example, is one from six years ago) that the media for some reason which - I nearly said "which I can't comprehend" but which I do - the media appears unwilling to mention.

Just like in the "Social Security is going bankrupt!" fear-mongering of a few years ago, the intention is to develop a driving drumbeat overlaid with shrieking strings to create such a sense, such a feeling, of looming but unspecific doom that it will stampede people into contradicting their own best interests and undoing the gains of decades. The only difference now is that instead of a frontal attack it's a flanking move. We saw through it before, we need to see through it again.

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