Can we Occupy the budget debate? The Congressional Progressive Caucus
actually has a good proposal on the table, but the chattering class and
the press corps are fixated on Representative Ryan’s plan, which
doesn’t
meet any criteria of reasonableness or rationality. But it does meet
the criteria of “austerity,” the idea that addressing the “debt crisis”
takes precedence over all other possible priorities. What is to be
done? Fortunately, grassroots organizers have some ideas and are
gearing up to act.

——
According to the Congressional Progressive Caucus, they’ve
come up with a budget
that, within ten years, would eliminate the
deficit and produce a $31 billion surplus to boot. The Economic Policy
Institute (EPI) did an analysis (PDF)
of their handiwork. The EPI states
that:

National budget policy should
adequately fund up-front job creation, invest in long-term economic
growth, reform the tax code, and put the debt on a sustainable path
while protecting the economic security of low-income Americans and
growing the middle class. The proposal by the Congressional Progressive
caucus achieves all of these goals.

Significantly, the Progressive budget proposal begins with the need to
rebuild America’s physical infrastructure. Roads and railways, power
plants and sewage systems, that is, real stuff that directly affects
people’s lives. By contrast, the House of Representatives 2013 Budget
Proposal, modestly termed “The Path to Prosperity,”
takes as its main priority the heading off of a “debt-fueled crisis.”
Is there any such crisis to be avoided? That’s far from clear.

Let’s take student loans as an example of a debt problem. The total
amount owed to the Federal Government on student loans just
now
hit the $1 trillion mark. According to President Obama, as
reported by Oregon
Live
, the need to repay “the massive debt overhang … casts a dark
shadow on millions of Americans and their future.”

“Student loan debt has surpassed credit
card debt for the first time ever,” the president told the Colorado
crowd. “Living with that kind of debt means making some tough choices
when you’re first starting out. You put off buying a house or starting
a business or starting a family. When a big chunk of your paycheck goes
to student loans, that’s painful not just for the middle class, but
it’s harmful for our economy because that money’s not going to help
businesses grow.”

“Student debt is a huge, huge problem for everyone,” says University of
Oregon President Richard Lariviere. “It’s skewing the choices that
students make in terms of what they can do afterward. It deters
significant elements of the population who should be in school from
going to school.”

So, obviously, having to owe either the government or a private
business lots of money for one’s education is an unpleasant problem
that no one wants to have, but student loans can be paid off over ten
or more years. Applying the term “crisis” to the student loan situation
sounds to me like you’re applying an awfully overheated, melodramatic
description to a long-term problem. It’s just not clear that the
description of “crisis” even remotely applies. Likewise, it’s far from
clear that government debt constitutes a “crisis” either. Certainly, it
can be a “huge, huge problem,” but it’s difficult to see why people’s
needs for an up-to-date infrastructure should be deferred so that
America can solve a “debt-fueled crisis.”

Next to last paragraph from a very interesting piece on a
favorite blog of mine
:

There will come a day in the future
when regular people look back at us, thunderstuck. “Deficits? That’s
what these idiots cared about? Their big political arguments were about
paying back deficits on bonds held by bankers the government bailed
out, right during the middle of a recession, while ignoring the
impending climate change disaster? Not only ignoring it, but
desperately trying to figure out how to extract more oil? Just how
stupid were these people, anyway?
” [emphasis in original]

I concluded a long time ago that the desire for aristocracy was a
permanent, inborn, inherent trait. I don’t connect that desire to any
sort of Marxist theory because I believe the desire long pre-dates
capitalism. I guess we have to add, as a corollary to that, that the
desire to impose austerity upon those who aren’t members of the
aristocracy is a related phenomenon. After all, aristocrats like to
feel that there’s a real and substantive difference between themselves
and everyone else. Maybe when working people enjoy middle-class
existences, that is a source of anger, or at least disgruntlement, for
aristocrats.

One noticeable claim made by the Chairman of the House Budget
Committee, Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) is:

Senate Democrats – for over 1,000 days –
have refused to pass a budget.


This is a more-or-less true claim. certainly it is true that no budget
has been passed for over 1,000 days, but is that because Senate
Democrats have “refused” to pass one? Back in June 2010, the reason
that the then-Majority Leader Steny Hoyer gave
was that 

“It isn’t possible to debate and pass a
realistic, long-term budget until we’ve considered the bipartisan
commission’s deficit-reduction plan, which is expected in December.”

Of course, “Cat
Food Commission II
” failed to produce any such plan as austerity,
the underlying philosophy of the commission to begin with, was and is
an incredibly bad idea. The Hill confirmed
in February 2012 that Republicans were using Ryan’s “1,000 days”
talking point, but Democrats have said that the deal reached in August
of last year serves as a budget as it calls for everything to remain as
it was in late 2010 (Before the mid-term election of that year) with
the exception of a few specified cuts. There’s no real question that
Democrats want a very, very different budget from what Republicans
want. As Slate
puts it:

There are two issues: Republicans who
won’t vote for a final bill unless it contains “riders” related to
health care, abortion, and funding for the EPA; and those who think
anything less than the $61 billion in cuts is too little.

The Democrats are not simply being stubborn for the sake of being
stubborn. It’s that Republicans want things to go along with a budget
resolution that Democrats simply can’t stand to see put into
legislation. So no, the story is nowhere near as simple and
straightforward as “Senate
Democrats … have refused to pass a budget.”

Ryan has
lost some of his “bipartisan” cover
with the clarification from
Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) that he’s in favor of the original white paper
that he and Ryan put together, but is not in favor of the Republican
budget plan for this year, which makes Ryan and Republicans at least a
bit more exposed. Wyden showed in The Hill piece that’s he’s a staunch
Blue Dog Democrat by stating that he was in favor of the plan put
forward by the two co-chairmen of “Cat Food Commission I,” Chester
Bowles and Alan Simpson. The Commission never
put out a plan
in its own name as they couldn’t get the necessary
number of members to all sign onto the plan supported by the two
co-chairs. I believe it says something about Wyden’s credibility that
he refers to “the deficit-reduction plan drafted by the Simpson-Bowles
commission” when there was actually never any such agreed-upon plan.
What he means is “the plan
put forward by the two co-chairs” as the commmission as a whole was a
failure.   

Critics of the Ryan have been numerous. Economist Dean Baker points out
that Ryan’s plan preserves the big three New Deal/Great Society
programs, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and would leave
defense expenditures intact or even greater, but
would eliminate pretty much all
of the rest of the US Government.
Forbes says
the Ryan plan “would result in huge benefits for high-income people and
very modest—or no— benefits for low income working households” and
“would likely result in a huge tax cut for those who need it least.”
The WaPo states
that:

Bowing to demands from conservatives
influenced by the tea party movement, House leaders are pressing to
protect the Pentagon in 2013 while cutting budgets for domestic
agencies below levels set during last summer’s showdown over the
federal debt ceiling. The decision has alarmed both Democrats and some
GOP moderates, who said the move could spark a fresh clash over the
annual bills needed to keep the government running into the new fiscal
year, which begins Oct. 1.

Fox News, of course, loves the Ryan
plan
, lauding Ryan’s “courage.” The Cleveland Plain Dealer
editor Kevin O’Brien thinks the Ryan
plan “would not cut government far enough fast enough.” The fact that
“Ryan’s budget would devastate children, seniors and people with
disabilities” is treated as either untrue or just a bothersome
technicality. And Jared Bernstein asks
a series of 10 questions
that he (and I) don’t think Ryan is
willing to answer on the record.

So it is a puzzle. Why is the chattering class and the press corps in
Washington DC busy discussing the Ryan plan and not that of the
Congressional Progressive Caucus? Fortunately, many grassroots groups
and organizations are taking action to shift the national political
conversation away from deficits and toward the priorities of the 99%.

We know the people want to be composing our national budget around real
priorities, not around manufactured austerity-driven crises. The
strength of this need is precisely what caused the explosive growth of
the Occupy movement last fall. Locally, our own Occupy Philly is
organizing around this shift in a campaign to
protect food distribution programs
that serve the poor and the
homeless. It appears also, that just about all the major anti-war
groups around the country are addressing economic issues along with war
and peace issues. For the mid-May gathering in Chicago, the War
Resisters League, United for Peace & Justice and the American
Friends Service Committee, along with many others, issued a list of five
demands
, the third of which is: “Substantial reductions in U.S. and
NATO military spending to fund our communities and to meet human
needs.” MoveOn.org is going to try to draw all this together with its
top campaign, “The
99% Spring
,” which will be a nationwide uprising April 9-15 “to
train ourselves in non-violent action and join together in the work of
reclaiming our country.”

Editorial assistance by fellow IMCer
Amy Dalton