Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Progressives and the deficit

Progressives have more at stake in developing a long range plan to balance the federal budget than do Conservatives, because we believe that government has an important role to play in modern life. Conservatives have long lamented 'tax and spend', while practicing 'don't tax but still spend' and then arguing that the inevitable deficits prove that government doesn't work.

If progressives would commit to leading on the hard and politically risky work of painting a progressive vision for how to get to a sustainable federal budget we would do two things.
  • First, directly engage a crucial problem facing our nation. The most important reason to do it is because it is the right thing to do. Our current budget is unsustainable, and waiting for a debt driven financial crisis to cause us to address these problems will give us fewer options that will put programs such as Medicare and Social Security at risk.
  • Second, politically we would call the bluff of Conservatives, who seem only to care about deficits when in opposition, and never when discussing tax cuts. Our rhetorical disinterest in the deficit has allowed Conservatives to get away with rank hypocrisy in this area because the public has, perhaps rightly, seen us as mostly interested in developing new programs in spite of the balanced budgets of 1998-2000. If Progressives provide leadership, Conservatives will be forced to respond (and some want to do so), and the reality of the situation is that both spending and taxes will have to be altered if we are to achieve a sustainable budget.

On a path to a sustainable budget there will be room for investments in education, the environment and infrastructure. Without such a plan, programs such as the Race to the Top Education initiative, which at a total cost of $4.35 Billion is small in relation to the total budget but still consequential, will seem out of reach. With no changes to our current tax code and projected spending, all federal tax receipts will be consumed by Medicare/Medicaid, Social Security, Defense and Interest on the Debt in 2020. Every other dime of federal spending will be debt financed even with a normal economy, a situation that is unsustainable.

The best way to preserve Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and other Progressive priorities is to provide leadership in the difficult and inevitable work to develop a sustainable federal budget. It will take both political parties and compromise to get this done. Progressives should lead the way.

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