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Jason Erb Headshot

Entitlements, Defense and the Not-So-Super Committee

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On Thursday September 8, at the first meeting of the Congressional deficit cutting Super Committee, Sentator John Kyl (R-Arizona) set the tone for the coming months' debate on the debt, the budget and America's overall finances. Kyl threatened to quit the committee if it talked about further defense cuts. In doing so, he showed that the Super Committee will not only likely be a failure, unable to forge a compromise consensus, but that brinkmanship is now a weapon of first choice for Conservative lawmakers. To Conservatives, budget cuts can only come from "entitlements", while corporate welfare and defense programs go untouched. To Conservatives, anything less means a return to the political dysfunction of this summer's debt ceiling fiasco and the further weakening of American fiscal credibility.

The Conservative agenda of cutting all social safety net programs for the poor and vulnerable in America stands in stark contrast to its attitude towards coddling of the rich. When faced with a proposal to return the tax rate of those earning more than $250,000 a year from its current rate of 35% back to its already reduced 1990's level of 39% to help fill the gaping hole in America's budget Conservative commentators instead proposed taxing the poor and middle classes at an even higher rate than they currently pay.

This was not a hyperbolic political effort to deflect the discussion about reasonable policy options into the realm of the ridiculous. As far back as 2002 the Wall Street Journal and Conservative pundits talked about "The non-Tax Paying Class," in reference to the 16 million people who file taxes but pay no taxes. And while this criticism is ostensibly leveled at those who enjoy Congressionally determined loopholes in the tax code, as if it is elected officials simply giving gravy coated handouts to favored constituents, the biggest tax relief is largely a form of poverty alleviation on those with such low income that it would be useless and simply criminal to tax them at a rate of 15-28%. In fact, the number of Americans not liable to pay federal income taxes in 2006 corresponds roughly with the number of Americans living in poverty.

Government "hand-outs" to the poor are not simply charity. Studies in poverty and development show that investments in health and education for the poor are prudent expenses that have real impact on a country's gross domestic product. When the poor do not visit a doctor because they cannot afford the fees, simple, inexpensive or preventative health measures that could be prescribed are not followed, often leading to greater health expenses that burden both the poor household and the entire economy through hidden costs of underdevelopment, such as under-skilled workers, low productivity and absenteeism.

As for education, it is one of the best ways to help a household escape from poverty, as it allows children of the poor to get better paying jobs and help lift their families from the state of deprivation and survival. Early childhood education has major positive effects on later cognitive functioning of children once they reach adulthood. Health and education investments in poor households are not handouts to the non-tax paying class, they are wise investments that contribute to higher living standards for all Americans.

Contrast these efforts to invest in ordinary Americans with Conservatives' blind support for defense. According to Wikipedia, the Department of Defense budget for 2010 was $680 billion, plus $37 billion supplemental for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. But other US government agencies also incur defense related costs, such as the Department of Energy and the US treasury, making the overall bill for defense related spending more than $1 trillion annually, with an increasing percentage of that simply being the interest on debt incurred in past wars.

The actual amount spent on defense is unknown because significant portions of the defense budget are classified and therefore not open to public scrutiny, meaning there is little real accountability on how this money is spent. We are just to trust, but not verify, despite a Wall Street Journal article that states that cost overruns on the top 75% of procurement programs ran close to $300 billion in 2010. Surely we can find additional savings in our defense and military spending, especially if we are talking about reducing investments in human development at home.

Senator Kyl's actions on Thursday and Tea Party tactics during the budget ceiling discussions show that Conservatives will precipitate ruinous failure in American before they take one step back from their dogma of cutting smart and cost efficient investments in America while supporting unchecked, non-productive defense spending. Conservatives are ready to tear down the whole country if they do not have their way in the budget talks, and cry class warfare when criticized. In that case, I would be happy to see the likes of Senator Kyl quit the Super Committee. Then maybe it can accomplish something.