During a casual airport conversation on a recent business trip, a Ugandan woman sitting next to me said, “America tries to force democracy on other countries but in my country we have too many uneducated people for democracy to work. As a result, the people are taken advantage of by their elected leaders.” She looked at me sadly and said, “I feel sorry for America because your democracy is no longer working for you either.”
Her astute observation is exemplified in the debt ceiling debate. Congress and the President are engaged in a destructive game of political posturing and, despite their efforts to deny responsibility for the impasse, both branches of government are culpable because they are misrepresenting the nature of the policy choices to the American people.
The Republicans are trying to peddle at least two major myths: that their party had no role in creating the nation’s current debt crisis and that the wealthy have no role in helping to solve it. A quick review of the facts show that the crisis actually was created and dramatically expanded under the reign of George W. Bush and the Republican Congress. That a party that spent with reckless abandon when they controlled all branches of government—embarking on unfunded wars abroad and creating a nonnegotiable and unfunded prescription drug mandate for seniors—is now trying to portray itself as a responsible fiscal leader is farcical.
Their second primary posture is also incredible. Asking for increased revenue from people and corporations who are sitting on piles of extra cash is not an unreasonable request. When you combine the fact that the nation’s wealthiest individuals are enjoying historically low tax rates and that wealthy corporations are paying no taxes, indeed receiving tax refunds, to demand that they do nothing to contribute is worse than political pandering—it’s anti-America.
President Obama’s position is not above the fray. He disingenuously argues that closing tax loopholes for the wealthy is an equal tradeoff for cuts to social programs vitally important to people who have little income, no wealth, and few privileges. Cuts to programs like Medicare, Medicaid, WIC, and Social Security would represent a severe hardship for working families who are struggling to put food on their tables and to keep a roof over their heads. These cuts would be especially painful for people of color who have less household wealth to help compensate for the loss of income and health security afforded by these programs.
President Obama also talks about “extending the payroll tax cut for working families” as if this policy option were a free lunch. What he is not explaining is that these very same payroll taxes fund the Social Security trust funds and that, by embracing this policy, his Administration is embarking down a dangerous path that could undermine the program. Sadly, he is counting on Americans to be too ignorant to understand the vital connection between the payroll tax and their Social Security benefits.
Not only does his proposal represent a dangerous departure from our nation’s traditional effort to keep social insurance funding separate from the general budget, it also has had no net positive effect on jobs, the economy, or household budgets due to the offset from rising gas and food prices. (I will address the question of why the President’s advisors may be encouraging him to take this ill-advised path in a future article).
Unfortunately, members of both political parties are perpetuating the myth that cuts to Social Security, Medicare and other social programs would be good for our children. Yet, I have argued elsewhere that due to the effects of the recession and demographic trends our children will continue to heavily rely on these programs in the future. Because a majority of them will be black and brown by 2019—these permanent cuts represent a form of fiscal racism that forces future generations to pay for imprudent policy decisions from which they gained no benefit. Implausibly, instead of strengthening programs for our children, current budget proposals would shortchange them.
At the present moment, Americans are facing failed democratic institutions, posturing politicians of all stripes, and a nation on the brink of another fiscal disaster that can take us into the next Great Depression. In Monday night’s speech to the nation President Obama said, “We can’t allow the American people to become collateral damage to Washington’s political warfare.” Well, it’s too late. The fact that we are focusing our attention on the long-term debt issue instead of the immediate jobs crisis means that needs of Main Street have, yet again, taken a back seat to the desires of Wall Street.
Until our nation’s political leaders can get their priorities straight, “the greatest nation on earth” will remain the greatest show on earth.
Dr. Maya Rockeymoore is President and CEO of Global Policy Solutions, a social change strategy firm based in Washington, DC and Founder of GlobalPolicy.TV, a web platform for diverse thought leaders.