Enough already about sequestration. The massive budget cuts that make up the looming sequester are self-imposed and, like last fall's so-called "fiscal cliff," present us with two bad alternatives for funding the United States government. This time the choices are: (a) across-the-board cuts in military and social spending with no tax increases; or (b) some combination of targeted spending cuts and revenue increases, such as closing loopholes.
Are these really our only choices? Well, maybe -- if you buy into the idea that we must close the federal budget deficit right away. But you shouldn't.
Reducing the deficit is a Trojan Horse. The Republican leadership wants to cut spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other social programs, while decreasing taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations and increasing military spending. These items have been at the top of their agenda for a long time. Demanding that the federal deficit be eliminated immediately is just a convenient way to get what they want: a weaker government that serves only to fuel the military industrial complex and ensure that the rich get richer.
This scenario is bad for the United States, and it's particularly bad for women and people of color, who have already been disproportionately slammed by the economic crash -- which cratered the value of their homes and their 401(k)'s -- compounded by the economy's continued sluggishness. The programs Republicans are so eager to cut -- nutrition programs, college tuition assistance, family planning clinics, rape crisis centers and battered-women shelters to name just a few -- all combine to help struggling families get their heads above water and move toward economic security. And they are popular with a majority of voters, who don't support cutting them in order for the wealthiest to hang on to their tax dodges and benefits.
Besides, shrinking the federal budget deficit does nothing to reverse the out-of-control income and wealth inequality in this country that threaten long-range economic security and even our democracy.
So, what would work? Well, first we have to acknowledge that fixing the deficit should not be the country's top priority right now -- improving our economy should, and it just so happens that a better economy would help reduce the deficit.
Richard Eskow recently decried "the cruel irrationality of Austerity Economics," pointing out that those who say they want the U.S. government to be run "more like a business" don't seem to grasp the basic business concept of investing for the future. Eskrow writes:
The first error our leaders make is in thinking about government spending in a zero-sum way. In their minds, money goes out and is lost forever. The concept they're missing is investment... If our government was really run like a business, it would be borrowing and investing in future economic growth. The returns would be excellent, and it would even make money on the loans.
In fact, now is the right time for the U.S. government to invest in creating jobs, when it can borrow money at near-zero interest rates. Moving aggressively -- immediately -- to shrink unemployment is a far more urgent need, and a far smarter strategy, than slashing spending to shrink the deficit. It's pretty simple: more people working at good union wages, with health benefits, retirement security and equal pay for work of equal value means a stronger middle class and more opportunities for business. Couple that with a tax system that reliably requires corporations, millionaires and billionaires to pay their fair share, and it all adds up to more dollars flowing into the U.S. treasury. And there goes the deficit.
But that's not really what GOP leaders and the Tea Partiers want. Sadly, the Republican Party is still in the grip of a radical fringe who want to use the deficit to starve government programs that they don't like -- which, as it happens, disproportionately serve and employ women -- with the ultimate goal of dismantling them altogether.
The question is whether that fringe will rule the day. I have a friend who says no. At least, she believes this week's events may have given us a slim ray of hope. Today, 87 Republicans in the House broke ranks with Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) to vote for the inclusive Senate version of the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization that protects all victims including those in the LGBT community, Native American women, women on college campuses and immigrant women. Wouldn't it be great, my friend mused, if we could convince those same legislators, and their colleagues on both sides of the aisle, to take a principled and common-sense stand against the sequester and for a growing economy?
Could it happen? One thing is sure: continuing to punish the middle class and the most vulnerable among us is no way to run a productive nation -- and it's just plain wrong.