This morning, I saw an unusual sight in my fairly well-off neighborhood: a homeless man sleeping on the steps of a local church. Last night, the temperature dropped to 48 degrees. But if Republicans gain control of Congress, it's going to get much, much colder.
After all, here we are in the midst of the worse economic recession since the Great Depression, with recent crises of unemployment and foreclosure piling on top of long-term, crisis-level underemployment and financial instability that has plagued families and communities from Brooklyn to Boise. Minimizing the role of government and letting the private sector do whatever it wants created these crises -- from "free-trade" policies that shipped manufacturing jobs overseas to the greedy recklessness of the financial sector. You don't have to be an economist to know that if the private sector wrecked our economy, the private sector alone can't fix it. And you don't have to be a socialist to know government has a role to play in putting us all on the path to prosperity.
But, apparently, you do have to have a heart. When you see a homeless person or someone on food stamps or a family getting Medicaid, you have to have the heart to know that they didn't fall on hard times because of some fault or failing of their own. Hard times have fallen on them.
We understood this during the Great Depression. The New Deal didn't kick poor people squarely in the rear and tell struggling workers to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. The Depression ended because of collective and compassionate public policy -- like the Fair Labor Standards Act that established the minimum wage, the Federal Housing Authority that ensured affordable homes and, of course, the creation of Social Security. The antidote to the coldly brutal and unequal era of the Robber Barons was government not only with a helping hand, but a heart.
At least George W. Bush feigned compassion. Today's GOP boasts of its plans to slash government spending and bleed social programs to their core. This tough talk resonates with the surging anti-government sentiments, but can decent Americans of any political stripe really stomach the harsh reality if that rhetoric is put into practice?
The United States currently has $13.7 trillion in debt. Modest cuts to the federal budget will not address the deficit-spending concerns of conservatives. Addressing the deficit means significantly cutting Social Security, Medicare and/or defense spending and/or raising taxes. That's it. Those are the only options. And since Republicans congenitally refuse to increase taxes (especially not on the super-rich, even if NOT raising taxes means adding $700 billion more to the deficit), GOP candidates stump on cutting spending.
We all know they ain't cutting defense, especially since that's how Republicans created the deficit in the first place. From the New York Times: "... federal budget statistics show that Republican policies over the last decade, and the cost of the two wars, added far more to the deficit than initiatives approved by the Democratic Congress since 2006... "
Republicans can only fulfill their campaign promises by drastically cutting Social Security and/or Medicare.
Cutting Social Security means more families already struggling to make ends meet in the late stages of life will have to work even longer into old age or struggle even more with even less in monthly benefits. Cutting Medicare means significantly restricting the health-care options available to vulnerable Americans. Ironically after opposing the health-care-reform bill that would cut insurance profits and make care more affordable for everyone, it's Republicans who are inching toward "death panels" to cut Medicare for the elderly.
Add to this all the other programs -- food stamps, public infrastructure jobs, subsidized housing vouchers -- that Republicans will kill first to put off more politically perilous cuts and we will have a very bleak winter indeed. We have deep structural problems in our economy -- problems that are beyond the ability of any one worker or any one company to fix. Are Republicans delusional enough to think that, if they cut taxes for super-rich CEOs and decimate social programs, the guy sleeping on the church steps will finally get fed up with freezing every night and go get a job as an accountant?
I don't actually think Republicans are that stupid. I do, however, think they're that heartless. I don't think they care about those Americans our economy has long left behind, those who, no matter how strong our economy is, tend to remain unemployed and struggling. That's been clear for a long time, since Reagan started slashing social programs in the 1980s. The more recent development is that Republicans seem to care less and less for the middle class, too. To today's Republicans, the economy is thriving if big business is thriving. Working families are not a part of their equation. Thus, more and more families are hanging by a thread and relying on food stamps and unemployment and other programs Republicans want to cut to put the economy even more under the control of the big businesses that ruined it.
If Americans don't stop believing the Republican hype about deficits and the need to cut spending, pretty soon we'll all be left out in the cold.