Several analysts have produced articles that go into detail about the severity of spending cuts necessary to immediately address the current Fedeal defecit and long-term national debt. They paint a pretty thorough picture - and present what is ultimately an "austerity plan" plan more drastic than those imposed in either Greece, Portugal or Ireland.
Such deep cuts not only would be answered with public fury, they are undesirable while the economic crisis persists - cutting spending in the face of recession is a serious mistake. Beyond that, the focus on short-term defecit and debt reduction ignores the broader importance of using government spending as a major policy tool - and ignores the lessons of history. But little matter, in the view of the more conservative Republican members of Congress - they see the cuts as a pathway to alter government at its very roots.
While most authorities agree that debt must be reduced, it is in the matter of approaching that issue that progressives and conservatives have differences. For example, under the new GOP-dominated House rules, every new dollar a measure would spend must be matched by a dollar of cuts from current expenditure. That overturns the prior "pay-as-you-go" rule, which permitted either offsetting spending cuts, or offsetting revenue increases.
The philosophy, according to new Speaker John Boehner, is that "we don't have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem."
To some extent, that is not a bad point of view - in that determined efforts to restrain government spending, and at least very serious consideration of those purposes for which spending is committed, create a more responsible and somber judgement about government expenditures. Nonetheless, revenue is in fact an issue, especially when tax policies discourage job creation at home, long-term capital investment in American business, and expansion of American manufacturing for goods desired in the global marketplace.
Also, the flat denial that sometimes spending, and government debt, have benefits that override pure fiscal conservatism is a serious error on the part of the Speaker and those who agree with him. And the denial that there is a revenue problem is likewise a significant error - but it is a duplicitous position, too, masking the intent of the House now to protect corporate and higher-income tax loopholes, exemptions, and policies that are extremely unpopular in the country.
In broad terms, the conflict is one of a philosophy of government - today's House majority wishes to change the philosophy that has evolved since the FDR Administration, in which government is seen as:
- distributing national resources where needs exist,
- developing institutions to oversee business practices,
- protection of natural resources (environmental regulation),
- safety of the food supply,
- promote public health and respond to epidemics,
- encourage American commerce abroad,
- promote education,
- protect civil rights,
- regulate labor relations,
- invest in public infrastructure,
- stabilize the money supply,
- and in times of economic distress mitigate the effects of recession while helping to bring the economy back to health.
In contrast, one faction in the GOP House majority takes the view that virtually all of those functions, where they are even admitted as a government function, are more properly the task of state governments. Some of the House majority would eliminate virtually every one of those functions.
The emerging mechanism for implementing the conservative philosophy of government is so-called debt reduction by deep cuts in government spending.
However, the spending cuts are not debt reduction, although theyn will aid in reducing current Federal defecits, which of course in time add to the national debt. Still it is impossible, and even undesirable in current conditions, to attempt to match present public expenses with present revenues.
Those who liken managing government fiances to running a business or keeping the household books do not recognize that the government is not a business and that depending on circumstances, debt is both necessary and desirable.
Governments engage in very expensive, long-range activities that are not conducted for profit, opposite to the activities of a business. Whether those activities include costly wars, as the U.S. has been doing for 10 years, major highway construction, as the country is constantly doing, or massive emergency programs answering the demands of an economic collapse, as has been the case since 2008, they are undertaken in the public interest and paid for with long-term debt.
This practice evolved beginning in the 1690's, when the War of the League of Augsburg (1688-1697) financially exhausted Britain and France. France attempted to fund the war with short-term, high-interest loans and current receipts, eventually becoming so stressed that she accepted the Peace of Ryswick in 1697 with virtually nothing to show for the years of struggle.
Britain, however, in 1693 recognized that short-term defecit spending without making timely payments to vital suppliers, sailors and soldiers, was undermining the country and causing terrible hardship among the merchants, farmers, lumberjacks and all others involved. So in 1694 the Bank of England was born and the beginnings of a principle of national debt, amortized over time, was born. It ultimately financed England's industrialization and empire, enabling the country to weather economic troubles and wars and ultimately prevail in the contests of European powers for more than 200 years.
(See Peter Padfield,Tide of Empires, Vol. !!, 1654-1763, Routledge & Kegan Paul, Ltd., London, 1982)
Similarly, some public debt is called for under present circumstances in the United States. While the character and terms of the financial institutions' bailout is open to considerable criticism, the fact of its necessity is not. Neither was the preservation of a core American industry, auto manufacturing (despite the Libertarian ideology to let it fail, a bankrupt view in its own right).
Regardless of the carping of the right wing ideologues, the stimulus program of 2009-2010 clearly succeeded. And unlike many prior recessions - notably those of the early Reagan Administration, the G.H.W. Bush Administration, and the 2001-2002 recession of G.W. Bush's Administration - this recession is being accompanied by a slow but accelerating rate of job creation. Only 1.2 million jobs were created in 2010, but an economists' survey by CNN recently forecast between 2.5 and 3 million new jobs, at minimum, in 2011.
These and other events under President Obama's stewardship prevented both the risk of full-blown Depression, and preserved an economic foundation for more robust recovery than was anticipated in recent years. And it required that the government undertake debt in order to pursue that vital public interest.
The present GOP House majority is taking a very short-sighted view of the national debt and current-accounts defecit. In contrast, during his messages in 2009 and 2010, the President clearly outlined a long-range approach toward first, reducing defecit speding in a relatively few years, and second, attacking the size of the national debt. That approach is consistent with responsible broad management of public policy and obligations.
The President's approach also keeps faith with a philosophy of government that seeks to create social stability, enhance opportunity for individual advancement, encourage not only growth in small businesses but also (for the first time since 1980) rebuild American manufacturing capacity, sustain the health and well-being of all Americans, provide for the future through education, and nurture the helpless.
This philosophy of government is neither socialist nor Communist, as some on the far right complain, but instead a system in which the benefits of an open and vigorous society are accessible at all levels of the economic scale - and enable greater mobility for those willing to strive and create or sieze opportunity.
In contrast, the philosophy of government espoused by the GOP House majority now aggravates the stratification of social and economic classes, uses tax policy to transfer wealth from the middle and lower classes to the higher income class, promotes depression of wages and benefits for workers, abandons the sick, the elderly, the poor and the helpless, splinters national identity in favor of sectionalism, and with a vengeance reinstates the ancient warning, Caveat emptor (Buyer beware!), in all areas of business and consumer transactions.
An America that steadily restores her economy, generates jobs, incomes and revenues to refill the public Treasury, and shelters her people from the worst effects of very hard times is what the President and the Democrats in Congress saw as their vision for the past two years. And it is a vision well on the way to becoming reality.
Unthinking adherence to short-term defecit reduction and lack of understanding about the role of national debt and how to resolve it over time gives the current House majority a tool to destroy that vision. And quite possibly, plunge the nation back into deep economic crisis.