David Hoppe

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:: The People’s Budget

You should think about this

by David Hoppe

The national debt is like white noise. It’s a sound that never lets up, is never still. Take a look at a web site called US National Debt Clock.org and you’ll see the visual equivalent of what I’m talking about, a screen of constantly flipping numbers that defy the eye to focus and the mind to comprehend.

As I write this, the national debt apparently stands at somewhere around $16 trillion. I don’t know about you, but trying to grasp what $16 trillion actually means is like trying to imagine how many dreams you’d have on a trip into deep space.

Senator Everett Dirksen, late of my home state, Illinois, supposedly cracked that, when it comes to government spending, “a billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking about real money.” Climb up into the trillions, and the effect is just the opposite. The money gets more unreal the higher you go.

For those of us back here on earth, of course, money, or the lack of same, is anything but unreal. We cling to our jobs, if we’re lucky enough to have them. We guard our health benefits as if they were bones in a dog pound. And we clock our way through the monthly rituals of paying the rent, the mortgage, utilities and credit cards.

For most of us, the reality of managing money looms like a picture window — and our noses are pressed against the glass.

It’s tempting to want to use our everyday experiences with money as a way of dealing with the white noise enormity of the national debt. If we have to cut back, shouldn’t the government? Our politicians and media seem to have adopted this approach. They have calculated, perhaps rightly, that dealing with the nation’s finances is way more than most Americans can handle.

That may be why we’re being subjected to a constant tug-o-war between President Obama and Republicans in the House and Senate. The president says the way to fix the debt is through collection of more revenue. Republicans want to cut spending. Meanwhile, the media sits on the sidelines, trying to assess which side is pulling the hardest. The result is that we, the people, are given the impression that a Grand Bargain needs to be struck to reconcile the competing forces.

We are told this bargain must include cuts to so-called “entitlements” like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. This is hard news for those of us with our noses against the glass. Have you checked your savings account lately? Your 401k?

Chances are, you’ve got less socked away than you need. This is not because you’ve been living the high life; it’s because most of us haven’t been earning enough to keep up with the cost of living since about, oh, 1979.

But maybe you’re younger. You think time is on your side. Except you’re not saving anything because you’re making the minimum and you’ve got student loans to pay. That’s OK, though, actuaries insist you’ll be able to work into your 70s. Of course, what you’ll be doing is anybody’s guess. Let’s face it: unless they’re in charge, septuagenarians will never be cool.

My point is that Social Security and Medicare are all the savings and health insurance many of us will ever have. What’s more, we’ve paid for it with our taxes. Any so-called Grand Bargain involving rolling back these programs is bound to make a future in which older people have less to spend and receive less care.

 But what if there’s another way of dealing with the national debt? Shouldn’t we consider it?

The Congressional Progressive Caucus has produced a budget for Fiscal Year 2013 that promises to balance the federal budget within a decade, moving to a surplus of $30.7 billion in 2021. The CPC calls this “The People’s Budget” because it shows a way our country can deal with its debt problem without hollowing out the programs people need to get by.

The People’s Budget says we can finance $1.7 trillion in public investment over the next decade; strengthen Social Security by lifting the cap on taxable earnings and save $308 billion over the next 10 years in health care costs by creating a public option for health insurance (remember that?) and allowing the government to negotiate prescription drug prices for Medicare Part D.

It also reduces the budget for conventional and strategic military forces, saving $692 billion; and ends all emergency war supplemental appropriations, saving $1.6 trillion. The PB calls for meaningful individual and corporate tax reform.

I know what you’re thinking: yeah, right. Given the white noise created by our national debt, who can say whether these numbers add up any better than, say, Paul Ryan’s version, where cuts to domestic programs make even some Republicans flinch. But why is it that instead of trying to strengthen our safety net, the pols and pundits think we should cut it?

It makes me wonder. Maybe that white noise we’re hearing about the debt doesn’t really have to do with numbers. Maybe it’s like the sizzle a frog hears before it realizes the water it counts on is starting to boil.

Google Budget4all or go to cpc.grijalva.house.gov/budget-for-all/ to learn more about the People’s Budget. Then contact your congressperson and ask whether they support it.