Thursday, August 4, 2011

A Dysfunctional Household

by Keith Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, August 4, 2011.

There has been a trend of late, on both the left and right sides of the political spectrum, to make comparisons between the national debt and budgetary concerns and the average household. The justification is typically that it makes it easier for folks to grasp a concept because they can get their heads around how their own finances work and can apply those principles to the government in terms of spending and revenue. It would make sense, too, if it weren’t for the fact that government budgets don’t work like our home budgets and the resources available for spending and saving models are quite different.

Of course, there are reasons of expediency that prompt us to use these analogies. For instance, it is easier to paint a picture of this household with a crazy uncle spending his money frivolously on those in need at the peril of his own, than it is to look at the painful truth and ask the difficult questions. Why is it that 47% of Americans require some federal benefit? The quaint Uncle Sam scenario ignores the fact that decades of lopsided policy, which favors the wealthy and corporations over the average citizen, has nearly eliminated the middle class, decimated the working poor and created an insurmountable wealth gap.

Not only is our crazy uncle more schizophrenic than Sybil, the entire family is dysfunctional. It’s bad enough that they eschew compromise like a plague and can’t come to agreement on important decisions. They also can’t think clearly about issues because their own habits have them feeding the corporate junky, or off on some reckless ideological binge. Republican House Speaker John Boehner is torn between pragmatic moderates, the Tea Party minority among Congressional Republicans, and an unrealistic anti-tax pledge he signed at the behest of powerful lobbyist Grover Norquist. Add this to the fact that he is clinging desperately to his leadership position in the House as Republic Majority Leader Eric Canter strives to undermine him and steal his job.

The Tea Party representatives seem incapable of grasping the potential damage of debt default or a downgrade of economic ranking. They appear publicly either denying the impact or downplaying it significantly. And as the nation heads toward a cliff of uncertain peril, they are trying to exploit a crisis to ram through an amendment to the U.S. Constitution — dangerous legislation, which should only be the result of careful and protracted debate.

Democrats, for their part, make a show at protecting programs that are of vital need (especially in a weak economy), only to slowly cave to political pressure. Meanwhile, real people are worrying over a future that discounts their existence and increases their burdens.

My brother Gordon’s personification of the spendthrift Uncle Sam has real flaws. When American households fall on hard times, they cut out frills; they take fewer vacations; they limit their trips around town and carpool; they keep that older car; they avoid large purchases. They don’t stop feeding Grandma. They don’t tell her to choose between medication and other daily needs. And they don’t write off their niece with breast cancer simply because she’s had the misfortune to be downsized by the company for which she used to work. Oh, by the way, these people receiving the help of “compassionate” Uncle Sam aren’t outsiders. They’re all members of the same American family.

Real American wage earners don’t turn down raises in income out of some sense of loyalty to a corporation. Republicans continue to protect the wealthiest two percent in the nation from any form of shared sacrifice, even as they scream about the deficit and national debt. No, raising the tax rate at the highest brackets a few percentage points won’t close the deficit gap, but turning down income in the face of rising debt is irresponsible.

And I’m tired of an insistence that the wealthy already pay their fair share. Yes, a majority of the tax burden falls on the wealthy. The wealth gap they helped to widen created that imbalance. More Americans than ever before don’t earn enough to pay income taxes. Consequently, the burden falls to those with the means and the healthy paychecks.

Pompous Libertarian Nick Gillespie appeared on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher recently. Regarding shared sacrifice, he said, “I believe in shared sacrifice. I just believe it should be a choice.” Are the poor, sick and elderly given a choice over the sacrifice that is soon to be imposed upon them?

Corporations are also favorites in the personification game. In fact, they enjoy all the rights of personhood bestowed upon them by their kindly Uncle Sam. Unfortunately, the responsibilities of personhood don’t fully apply. Our friends on the conservative right keep insisting that lower taxes for the wealthy and corporations manifest themselves in the form of jobs. Unfortunately, it’s not true and we can apply a household model to get us partway to the reason why.

The principle behind tax breaks at the corporate level is that if operating costs are lower and therefore profits are higher, there will be incentive to invest in the form of jobs. First, look at the household model. If we have more disposable income we might aspire to shop at local merchants and pay a bit more for goods and services that help the community and common good. The reality is that our addiction to “low, low prices” keeps us sheepishly shopping at Wal-Mart.

The same holds for corporations, only with an added consideration. Corporations are legally bound to the interests of shareholders. Therefore, any additional profit or savings in operating costs are absorbed as part of the unsustainable continual growth curve that corporations strive for to satisfy boards and investors. So, any investment in jobs, facilities or other expenditure that benefit the common good are made from the top down. And since corporations are addicted to Wal-Mart-priced jobs, they will continue to create their jobs overseas.

I am certain that by the time you read this column, the debt ceiling will have been raised and the immediate crisis averted. However, the family will still be as dysfunctional and the partisan wrangling over spending and taxes will rage on. Like Gordon, I think the nation needs a revolutionary intervention. His vision continues to favor the wealthy at the expense of the poor. Mine seeks to eliminate the codependency between corporate power and political leadership.

No comments: