A Fundamental Divide

Is government capable of productive activity on behalf of citizens beyond providing for the national defense?

That is the basic question now being played out in budget debates in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, important components of which are detailed in this week’s cover story, lead Government & Policy story, and two News of the Week stories (see pages 7 and 9). Democrats answer the question, “Yes.” Republicans, especially newly elected conservative representatives identified with the Tea Party faction of the party, answer, emphatically, “No!”

That emphatic “no” has led the House of Representatives to pass a fiscal 2011 budget that, if it became reality, would damage our nation’s ability to compete effectively with nations that have embraced the proven idea that R&D, innovation, and investments in infrastructure are the keys to a nation’s economic success. It would hamstring our efforts to continue to protect the environment and to move toward a sustainable technological future.

The fiscal 2011 budget passed by House Republicans is breathtaking in its irresponsibility. It insists, despite evidence from around the world, that government has little to no role to play in advancing the economic interests of the modern nation state. Please. Tell that to China.

There is an argument to be made that the current U.S. budget deficit is unsustainable. But the answer to that problem is not mindless slashing of a range of vital programs in the name of fiscal responsibility. The budget debate has been hijacked by ideologues whose only response to the deficit is to cut spending. From Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) to Wisconsin’s newly elected Republican Gov. Scott Walker, the simplistic phrase du jour is, “We’re broke.”

No, we’re not. We’re the richest country on the face of the Earth. We spend more on our military than all of the other nations on Earth combined. The answer to the deficit is a combination of judicious cuts in spending and higher taxes. On all of us. If I remember correctly, in 2000, before we started wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that nobody thought about how to pay for and before a series of unneeded tax cuts were enacted, the U.S. budget was balanced.

Taxes do three things, one of them negative and two of them at least potentially positive. The negative impact of taxes we all know. Taxes remove money from our pockets, money that we would like to keep possession of to save, invest, or spend on goods and services of our own choice.

The positive impacts of taxes, disputed by Republicans since at least Ronald Reagan’s presidency, are twofold: They pay for services and institutions—ranging from our defense forces to critical infrastructure like highway bridges that don’t fall down—that only government can provide, and they influence behavior.

Opponents of taxes argue that both positive impacts are illusory. Government, they argue, never does anything as well as the private sector. And influencing behavior—even productive behavior like corporate investment in sustainable technologies—just shouldn’t be part of the government’s mandate, their argument goes.

So let’s take a look at the Obama Administration’s proposed 2012 Food & Drug Administration budget as one example. The President is requesting a 29.3% increase in the agency’s budget, much of which will go toward helping FDA create a prevention-based food safety system, accelerate development of new tools and technologies for responding to emerging diseases, and develop an approval pathway for generic versions of biologic drugs. None of these activities are ones that the private sector will carry out. The increases, however, will have a tough time making it through Congress; the budget just passed by the House cuts FDA’s 2011 operating budget by $70 million.

The current budget debate, you see, isn’t really about the budget at all. It’s about using the power of the purse to accomplish ideological goals that are unpalatable to most Americans in and of themselves.

Thanks for reading.

Author: Rudy Baum

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3 Comments

  1. It doesn’t take a genius to understand the fundamental role of government-supported research in enabling most of today’s science and technology. But since when did today’s Republicans have any appreciation of nuance or any kind of foresight for the long-term future of this country? And those who do are so tied to the party line and their voting disctricts that they will never speak up. The average Joe on the other hand will largely believe whatever his representative will tell him (“fruit fly research is a waste of money”) and rally in its favor so the cycle fuels itself. As Woodrow Wilson said, a conservative is someone who sits and thinks, mostly sits. Most of today’s conservatives are worse though since they will actually act without thinking. End of rant.

  2. Couldn’t agree more. Like Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.” Today’s arguments for deeper and deeper budget cuts have lost all civility.

  3. Obama’s Department of Defense budget request for 2012 is under $700 billion dollars. The total federal budget is well over $2 trillion. Paring down the government to do nothing other than national defense would thus require a minimum of $1.3 trillion in budget cuts. Yet no Republican, not even the Tea Partiers, is pushing for more than $100 billion in cuts. That is less than 10% of $1.3 trillion.

    Thus to me Baum’s characterization of the budget debate as a question of whether the government should do anything besides national defense is laughably false. No proposed budget comes anywhere close to asking that question.