Monday, May 16, 2011

More on Budgets... and Moron Budgets

If you’ve been paying even a little attention lately, you’ve been hearing a lot about the federal deficit, which is ongoing, potentially crippling, and the subject of the rankest of hypocrisies from both sides of the aisle. Is raising the debt ceiling the first horseman of the apocalypse, as the Rush Limbaughs of the world would have us believe? Of course not. But the deficit is a serious issue, and one that won’t be solved without making some difficult choices.

And we’re going to continue to have a problem until and unless the Democrats decide to spend less and the Republicans decide to collect more. That’s an oversimplification, of course—the GOP certainly likes its military budget (well, except for actually paying the troops appropriately during and after their service: that part, the Republicans aren’t so good at), and the Democrats don’t want to raise taxes on anybody except the insanely wealthy, buying into the specious argument that with taxes the lowest they’ve been in two generations, it’s a struggle to survive on a mere $180K a year, even as the Dems try to claim they are the true representatives of families making a quarter of that.

But there some things we can agree on, and we ought to start there. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq need to be wound down sooner rather than later—or, alternatively, we need a coherent and well-documented rationale for staying. New weapons systems even the Pentagon says it doesn’t need get the axe. Subsidizing oil companies that are making record profits has got to stop. House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s proposed gutting of Social Security and Medicare is indeed “radical” and “right-wing social engineering,” as Newt Gingrich said it was before he started the ever-so-predictable walkback, but something really does have to be done (e.g. making FICA less regressive?). Finally, when we say we’re cutting the budget, we need to… you know… cut the budget, not actually increase spending, as the last so-called “cut” did.

On the income side, we could start by collecting what the BPs and Transoceans owe us, and above all to stop making excuses for their perfidy. More significantly, of course, as I’ve said before, we also need to raise taxes: a lot on the richest folks, some on most of us. The supply-side canard that the “rich create jobs” and are therefore to be exempt from feeling any of the pain suffered by teachers, cops, and similar leeches must be revealed as the daft and/or insidious dogma it is. The weeping and wailing about how the richest among us are paying a greater share of the taxes than at the beginning of the Reagan administration has got to stop, too, even though it’s technically true.

Here’s why: according to the Tax Policy Center, the top 1%’s share of the total tax burden in fact doubled from 1980-2007, from 14.2% to 28%. The top 10%’s share went from 40% to 55%. So the GOP has a point, right? Of course not. Because the wealth in this country has been concentrated in fewer and fewer hands over that period. Figures from the the Tax Foundation demonstrate this shift. With the proviso that the definition of Adjusted Gross Income changed with the Tax Reform Act of 1986, so comparisons on opposite sides of that date aren’t strictly apples to apples, we see that in 1980 the top 1% made 8.46% of the income; in 2007, that was 20.81%. The figures for the 10%: 32.13% and 48.05%. (Note: the Tax Foundation has different numbers than those cited above. That’s because the Tax Policy Center includes Social Security and the Tax Foundation doesn’t.)

Let’s see how the math works out here. Between 1980 and 2007, the last year for which these statistics are available, the top 1%’s income as a percentage of the whole went up 146% and their tax burden went up 97%. The top 10%’s income went up just under 50%; their taxes, under 38%. What I’ve tried to create here are real statistics which, of course, can be read in multiple ways. Those on the left will see that the richest 1% of the population has seen their incomes rise once and a half as fast as their tax burden over the last generation or so; for the top 10%, it’s about once and a third as fast. So shut up, already, with the “rich pay more than before” arguments. They’re crap, and either you know it and you’re being disingenuous, or you’re transcendently ignorant and fit only to be a Vice Presidential candidate for the GOP.

Those on the right, however, will compare different statistics: they’ll concentrate on the fact that the rich are indeed being taxed at a higher rate than the rest of us. The top 1% pays 28% of the taxes on 21% of the income; the top 10% pays 55% of the taxes on 48% of the income. So the screams on the left that the wealthiest are paying virtually nothing are also so much fertilizer. (That claim is true about corporations, but that’s a rant for another day.)

There are lots of ways of either saving money or bringing more in. How about not sending difference checks for federal financial aid until courses have been completed successfully? This would also have the further benefit of incentivizing academic success. It would mean that students would need a little more of their own money up front; in exchange, we’d be subsidizing tens of thousands fewer lazy little bastards whose job it is to sign up for classes, get a difference check, and never go to class again until doing the same thing at a different school next time. Or how about raising the gasoline tax, bringing in about $1.4 billion a year per 1¢ increase? This would also incentivize fuel efficient vehicles, improve air quality, and provide a number of other advantages.

But we also need to be willing to say that saving a few million dollars actually matters. That aircraft engine that John Boehner wanted only because it would be built in southwestern Ohio? $450,000,000 is a lot of money in my neighborhood, even if represents only a fraction of one per cent of the deficit, let alone of the entire budget. The amount of money to be saved by eliminating energy company subsidies? About $20 billion a year: a little over 1% of the deficit. I actually just read an article (alas, I can’t find it to link) that suggested that it isn’t worth the bother to save a mere $20,000,000,000. Seriously, where do they find these people?

But even smaller wastes of money matter. How about this one: $2 million for cameras so that parents can see what their kids are eating for lunch at school. Really. Dr. Lloyd Werk, Chief of Consultative Pediatrics at Nemours Children's Clinic in Orlando, says this is a way to fight childhood obesity. Dr. Lloyd Werk is an idiot. Does he really think that a parent who can’t see that Junior is as wide as he is tall is going to suddenly start taking an interest in a healthy diet just because of some Junior Spy-Cam photographs? Or that what a kid eats at lunch, as opposed to between classes, after school, etc., is the problem? Or that asking the kid what he had for lunch wouldn’t generate the same results for a shitpile less money? Seriously, I can’t decide whether I’m most appalled by this project as a civil libertarian, as a taxpayer, or simply as a thinking adult. I’m leaning towards this last option.

This is an Agriculture Department project, but you know as well as I do that supporters and especially critics will tag it to Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign. The Obamas—both of them—ought to run, not walk, away from this inanity. For one thing, it’s really bad politics. $2 million may be a drop in the federal government’s very large bucket, but it sure sounds like a lot of money to the average taxpayer. Of course, there’s going to be an interview with some Tea Party guru in every city in the country when this story finds its way to the local news, all of them suggesting that this is precisely the kind of wasteful spending they seek to eliminate. Trouble is, this time, with the surety of a stopped clock, they’re right. And that’s the real reason to ditch this program: not because it’s a political nightmare waiting to happen (although it is), but because it’s, well, stupid.

1 comment:

Gareth Andrews said...

The bigger question is why someone with more money should pay more money than someone else.

We are NOT in this together. Our choices are wildly different. On a simple level, it's a little like smoking and health insurance. Health insurance premiums are lower for people who don't smoke.

It won't matter, ultimately. The entitlements will break the system and the Dollar will be worthless in under 30 years.