What’s the budget debate about? Obama put the question of “how to balance the budget” in the context of “what kind of country will we be?”

The GOP puts the issue as entirely a matter of “living within our means”; it is strikingly silent on what kind of America will come out of the process. Despite Obama’s recent speech, the predominant approach from the Democrats has also not really come to grips with what’s happening to America and what to do about it.

The America of 2011 is not the country some thought it would be a decade ago when Washington and Wall Street prematurely laid claim to a “New American Century.” Far from triumphalism, the mood and reality today define a country that is deeply troubled. The stock market is back and profits are at record highs, but the economy is very sick. No remedy is emerging to deal with chronic high unemployment and underemployment; disparity in wealth distribution has never been as great; health care costs are galloping out of sight and poverty is expanding apace; educational opportunity is eroding and the infrastructure of the country is descending into potholes.

The structure of the economy has undergone drastic changes: its manufacturing base has been decimated, unions have shrunk, jobs have gone overseas and multinational corporations are evading taxes on a grand scale. On top of all this is the cruel burden of unending and unwinnable wars, the unbearable cost of maintaining a gargantuan military establishment with thousands of overseas bases policing the world.

America remains powerful on the world stage, but it is not the superpower whose strength can dominate the course of international developments. There are self-confident rivals who act with independence in economic and political affairs. Moreover, in a world that is undergoing epic economic and environmental crises, we are failing even to face up to the existential problem of climate change.

All in all, our problems are not a matter of a temporary glitch that can be resolved by cutting social programs or waiting for an upturn in the economy. Any meaningful remedies require taking account of the dimensions of the crisis and decline that grips the country. It also requires, as Obama said, a vision of what kind of America will be shaped by the way in which our crisis is confronted.

The Ryan budget ignores everything about the present crisis but the federal deficit. The GOP says absolutely nothing about what America would look like if it were to get everything it’s asking for: slashing education and basic services at every level, gutting Medicare and Medicaid, while shrinking revenue by cutting taxes on the wealthiest Americans.

There may be no magical solution to all our problems, but we can achieve a great deal by practical and humane alternatives in the way we budget and allocate the government’s resources. There is no mystery to the essential approaches that would both improve life for most Americans while reducing the federal deficit. (What’s not simple is how the people can overcome the obstacles to progress manipulated by corporate wealth with all its lobbyists, politicians, and largely controlled media.)

The “People’s Budget” put forward by over 80 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus points the way. It shows how to reduce the deficit while dealing more effectively with the nation’s crucial needs. The remedy is threefold: increasing revenue by raising (rather than lowering) taxes on the wealthy, especially the extremely wealthy, and closing tax loopholes; gaining control of and reducing the costs of heath care; getting out and staying out of wars, and sharply reducing the bloated military establishment. How far we go in dealing with these three problem areas will influence what we can do to stimulate the economy, generate jobs, expand education, renew infrastructure, and become serious about developing alternative energy and confronting climate change.

Rightist and corporate resistance to both health care reform and significant retrenchment of the military-industrial complex threatens to dig the nation into an ever-deepening hole. On health care, necessary control over costs is impossible without placing the public interest over the profits of the mega health insurance and drug corporations. Medicare for all, cutting out the role of private greed, is the ideal solution, but at least some significant measures to strengthen the public’s hand are essential.

As for the colossal “defense” budget, it was shaped by exploiting the exaggerated paranoia that marked the Cold War and it has continued to expand out of any reasonable relationship to present reality. As Defense Secretary Gates recently acknowledged, “any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.” Particularly irrational and dangerous is the hugely costly nuclear weapons arsenal. Beyond that, the vast network of bases abroad serves no worthwhile purpose since notions of “policing” the world prove illusory as well as provocative.

So there is an effective and humane way forward. Ryan’s corporate backers tout his “courage” in putting on the table so-called “entitlements”, the privileged set’s euphemism for programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid that meet fundamental human needs. The courage that’s needed is what the Congressional Progressive Caucus has urged. One has to hope that the negative public response to the GOP-Ryan plan, the overwhelming nationwide opposition to gutting Medicare, will encourage a demand to go after the real “entitlements” of the corporate world: tax evasion, profiteering at the expense of public health, and the sacred cow that is the military-industrial complex.

Better than hope, what’s called for is a lot more of the outpouring of anger and protest that Governor Walker has encountered in Wisconsin. It’s time for the people to get into the debate.


Leon Wofsy
Leon Wofsy

Leon Wofsy is a retired biology professor and long-time political activist. His comments on current affairs appear online at Leon's OpEd.