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End scare tactics: Force government to keep a balanced budget

Published: March 27, 2009
Section: Opinions


<i>ILLUSTRATION BY Ariel Wittenberg/The Hoot</i>

ILLUSTRATION BY Ariel Wittenberg/The Hoot

Politics sometimes makes me think of birds. When I was little, I liked to make birds fly. When I would see a flock of birds sitting on a lawn or on the sidewalk, I would make noises at them and move toward them just enough to make them all take off. The bigger the flock, the better. Any kind of bird would do except one–pigeons. Pigeons in the city wouldn’t budge unless somebody actually touched them. I wouldn’t have done that. Kicking pigeons would’ve gotten me into trouble.

I was forcing a false choice on the birds: fly or be stomped, eaten, or otherwise dispatched. I wouldn’t have done any of those things. All I wanted was to make the birds fly. The birds, being bird-brained, didn’t know that– except for those pigeons. What did they know that the others didn’t?

Maybe they realized that they were so dirty that nobody would touch them. Or maybe they thought that, as pigeons, they were members of the lowest caste in an elaborate hierarchy of bird social relations that ornithologists have yet to discover, and thus had nothing to lose if kicked. But I think the pigeons had learned that pedestrians like me weren’t really a threat. The pigeons didn’t understand that custom and law protected them from all those feet. But they knew they had nothing to fear.

Today, I have more sympathy for the birds, because I know what it’s like to be treated like one. Americans can’t fly, but they can spend and borrow and regulate. Their leaders regularly make noises and threaten them in ways that force them to make false choices between their money and their lives or livelihoods. And unfortunately, the rules Americans would need to respond to politicians’ scare tactics with the pluck of pigeons– rather than the cluck of chickens– often don’t exist.

I don’t know when politicians began what I’ll call the birdization of the public, but it’s not difficult to find instances of it. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush maintained high defense spending for as long as they could during the late 1980s and early 1990s, even after it was clear that the Soviet Union was in economic decline and that Soviet leaders wouldn’t risk war. Even while they negotiated with Mikhail Gorbachev, whose lack of bellicosity made Reagan admit that the Soviet Union was no longer an “evil empire,” Reagan and Bush still claimed that “communist expansion” threatened America.

The false choice for Americans was clear: either fly or die, either keep paying the administration’s friends in the defense industry to create what would soon be an obsolete army, or succumb to the red menace. Heavy government borrowing made it possible to continue social spending, allowing Reagan and Bush to scare money out of the public without cramping its style.

In the same way, President George W. Bush launched his invasions, his expansion of the military, and his creation of a big, pushy domestic and border security apparatus. The Bush administration constantly cited the threat posed by terrorism and its alleged state sponsors in order to frighten Americans to line up behind these initiatives: terrorism would destroy Americans’ way of life, and the only alternative was to throw away money and civil liberties.

Little attention was paid to the issue of whether the ends sought by the power-hungry Bush and his military-contractor friends justified the means they employed to acheive them. The Sept. 11 attacks to which Bush referred most frequently could’ve been prevented easily by measures much less drastic than those Bush implemented, largely by redeploying America’s already-large military and law enforcement resources.

Instead, Bush used public money to line the pockets of his friends and buy himself reelection and wartime powers. As with Reagan’s spending, Bush’s was funded in part by massive borrowing, hiding its cost from the public while forcing later generations to pay for the present one’s unwillingness to stand up to the noisy little boy that it called its president.

America’s trade policy has also been created with scare tactics. “Protectionism” has become as dirty a word as “fascism” or “communism” in the American vocabulary. It was made so by politicians’ constant reminders that so-called “free trade” (framed not as a terrible “-ism,” but as an unequivocal good) means “prosperity,” while any barriers to trade mean certain poverty.

Never mind that a few Americans seem to gain most from trade, or that far more find themselves out of work or talking up their college degrees in a Wal-Mart personnel department. The first President Bush’s NAFTA, and President Bill Clinton’s WTO agreement, were both products of scare campaigns framing the choice facing Americans as one of prosperity or decline and poverty.

Reasonable arguments that trade in some sectors or with some countries warranted limitation, or that a trade policy that enriched holders of capital while ruining workers wasn’t really so good, were framed as anti-prosperity.

It’s harder to use scare tactics to induce Americans to give up programs that have proven their worth, or support legislation lowering their standards of living. The effort to implement national health care during Clinton’s first term, and the second President Bush’s more recent attempt to promote Social Security “reform,” were based upon claims that existing systems for provision of health care and Social Security were unsustainable, and that Americans’ only choice was to accept less health care and less Social Security than they had been promised. But both efforts failed. The majority of Americans who had been promised health insurance by their employers or were entitled to it from the government in 1993, and who were legally entitled to Social Security benefits during Bush’s second term, had rules and expectations that they could rely upon to overcome their fear and keep their feet on the ground.

I think that the current administration is using scare tactics in several ways. It has justified fighting President Bush’s wars by posing a false choice between spending money and giving in to “the foes or forces that could do us harm.” It has printed money and paid off big banks and financial institutions, claiming that the only alternative is the continuation of what Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner calls “the most severe financial crisis in generations.” And President Barack Obama is about to make “the huge healthcare costs… that we’re going to have to tackle” the subject of proposed reforms that will give a few more Americans health insurance but will give all of them less health care. This administration, like the last, apparently has no qualms about running enormous deficits to hide the true costs of its initiatives.

It would be hard to make the public less like birds. There’s no way not to feel insecure about the many aspects of modern life that individuals can’t control. But if we can’t be less bird-like, we can be more pigeon-like. As the failures of Clinton’s health care and Bush’s Social Security “reform” efforts suggest, what is needed are rules and expectations that Americans can point to when politicians come at them like silly little boys.

Guarantees of health care and Social Security at levels that no less than insured Americans have come to expect are necessary to human dignity. Guaranteeing both would help Americans to resist in pigeon-like fashion any politicians who come-a-scaring.

But it’s also necessary to ensure that politicians don’t scare all the money out of our pockets before it can be used in broadly beneficial ways. The public needs rules in place to motivate it to pay attention and to prevent politicians from creating choices between a falsely limited range of options.

Achieving this will require rules to limit both the potential impact of scare tactics and the public’s susceptibility to them. What is especially necessary is a constitutional rule– perhaps waivable in narrowly-defined, extraordinary circumstances, such as declared war–requiring that the government operate with a balanced budget. The fact that Bush, Obama, and the Congresses alongside them have kept straight faces while asking the public to incur enormous debt shows that only firm rules can prevent abusive spending, which allows current leaders to pass on the bill for maintaining their popularity.

A balanced-budget rule would ensure that the “tough choices” Obama wants us to make aren’t the false, fly-or-die kind that I used to force on birds. Wars and earmarks (and, incidentally, tax cuts for rich people) would suddenly become harder to justify if it meant having to give up socially useful spending.

Typically untouchable aspects of the US budget, such as defense spending that is more than nine times larger than the next largest defense budget, might be reconsidered. The public would have to pay closer attention to the budget, and politicians wanting to keep their jobs would have to listen closely to how people wanted their money spent. To use the buzzword du jour, a balanced-budget rule might even make government “sustainable.”

Under such a rule, scare tactics would become less useful, because less money would be at stake. Until we have such a rule, scare tactics will remain in the ascendant, and that’s for the birds.