A real "moment of truth"

pic19

The release this week of the Republican-led House Budget Committee's proposed fiscal 2012 budget has drawn cheers from right-wing commentators for its draconian approach to turning around a deficit expected to exceed $1.5 trillion this fiscal year and ultimately eliminating the national debt - now over $14 trillion.

While calling for increases to military spending - now well over half of "discretionary" federal spending - and cutting top tax rates for wealthy individuals and businesses, the proposal announced by Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., would repeal federal health care reform, privatize Medicare and devastate Medicaid. It would sharply cut funds for other human needs programs, among them education, transportation, food safety and veterans' services. It envisions cutting federal spending by about $6 trillion over the next 10 years.

Ryan said of his proposal, "This is not a budget, this is a cause." And at week's end, Republicans were prepared to shut down the government for that "cause."

Among the commentators was New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks, who declared in his April 4 column, "Moment of Truth," that Ryan had "grasped reality with both hands." Brooks called the proposal "the most comprehensive and most courageous budget reform proposal any of us have seen in our lifetimes."

The Obama administration has also called for cuts to human needs programs, which though far smaller than those the Republicans advocate, would still cause widespread pain.

Leaving aside whether reducing the deficit should be a top concern now, with an economy only starting to recover from the worst downturn since the 1930s, or the $1 trillion cost of extending the Bush-era tax cuts for the very rich, there is another way to turn around the annual deficit and ultimately eliminate the national debt, while not just preserving, but actually increasing government spending on vital human services.

It's a way that would increase national security, both through helping to build an international climate of cooperation instead of conflict, and through assuring that Americans' most basic needs, including health care, housing, food security and education are met.

Last year the Sustainable Defense Task Force, initiated by a bipartisan group of members of Congress and made up of experts from a spectrum of viewpoints, came up with ways to cut nearly $1 trillion from military spending over the next decade. Writing in Talking Points Memo in February, task force member William Hartung of the New America Foundation pointed out that this figure is comparable to the $1.1 trillion the Obama administration hopes to save in domestic spending.

Hartung points out that U.S. military spending equals that of all the rest of the world, and notes that many of the Pentagon budget's most expensive items "are irrelevant to the most urgent threats we face."

U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., has for some time urged a 25 percent cut in U.S. military spending, which could save many tens of billions from the administration's proposed Pentagon budget for 2012 alone.

In 2008, economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes put the total cost of the Iraq war, including related costs such as treating and caring for returning veterans, at $3 trillion. Two and a half years later, they said that estimate "was, if anything, too low."

Last year it was reported that monthly Pentagon spending on the Afghanistan war had for the first time exceeded monthly spending on the war in Iraq. So costs there might ultimately reach similar levels.

And the first week of U.S. involvement in the intervention in Libya reportedly cost $550 million.

The northern California-based New Priorities Campaign - part of the nationwide New Priorities Network - puts it this way:

Our nation needs foreign and defense policies that serve the authentic needs of maintaining our security in a world where the use of force should be the last resort, not the first response ... Our nation's security can best be strengthened by reliance on diplomacy and negotiation, on economic development and education, rather than more troops, weapons and war.

New Priorities calls for ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, making major cuts in Pentagon spending and making "immediate, significant increases" in domestic spending for jobs, infrastructure, new technologies, health care, environment, an effective social safety net and other human needs programs.

Yes, David Brooks: There is another way to lower deficits and the national debt, and at the same time let our country use its tremendous resources to make sure that everyone's basic needs are met. That will truly be "grasping reality with both hands." That will be the real "moment of truth."

Image: Jeff Gitchel // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0