, Salem, MA

September 26, 2013

Watson: Budget debate ignores real problems

Brian T. Watson
The Salem News

---- — In the days left before Oct. 1 — the date on which parts of the federal government will shut down if further funding is not authorized by Congress — we’ll be reminded how uncompromising some members of the Republican Party are in conducting their politics.

I’m referring to those Republicans who would deliberately let the government run out of money on Sept. 30 in order to avoid the funding of the Affordable Care Act (”Obamacare”). Encouraged by tea party Republicans, the House of Representatives voted last week for a bill that would continue government spending, but only if funding for implementation of the health care law were eliminated.

The Senate, which also has to approve any legislation that would extend the government’s ability to underwrite its expenses, is not remotely about to kill the Affordable Care Act. Therefore, it will remove the health care cuts from the bill and send proposed legislation back to the House to keep all parts of the government up and running.

There is nothing wrong with questioning the health care act. It is ambitious, complex and long, and it will take some years of reform and monitoring before we’ll know if it is successful in reducing health care costs. But linking one’s opposition to it — as some Republicans are doing — to the bill that funds almost all of government is inappropriate. That action needlessly risks the damage that would be caused by interrupted government services; and because it is a futile protest, it displays a carelessness that signals an actual hostility to the necessary work of crafting political solutions in a big, diverse country where, usually, nobody gets his own way.

The other distressing aspect of this drama is that it distracts attention from the real problem, which is the stubborn recession we’re in, and the relationship of the federal budget and its spending priorities to the serious breakdowns in our hobbled economy.

For example, we have millions of unemployed and underemployed citizens. The resulting damage is huge. Individuals and families go into all sorts of crises — accumulating debt, losing homes, experiencing health issues or marital breakup, becoming dependent upon government assistance, and not paying taxes.

Closely related to the unemployment crisis are the foreclosure and student debt problems. Millions of out-of-work Americans are still in danger of losing their homes, and a significant percentage of recent college graduates holds staggering amounts of debt.

Fueling the unemployment problem is globalization. Although the Wall Street meltdown precipitated the recession, 30 years of mobile capital, financial changes, job transfers to the Third World, growing corporate hegemony, and computerization had already weakened much of the stability and balance that once characterized the economy.

We also have significant infrastructure problems. The deficiencies in our road networks, bridges, mass transit systems and urban commuting routes are large, and they place real limits on our present and potential economic prosperity.

Additionally, we are faced with pivotal energy choices. Newly flush with both natural gas and oil reserves — enough for, probably, hundreds of years — we have big decisions to make. And they carry enormous implications for our economy. Closely related to that is our response to the ever-rising quantity of carbon dioxide in the air. Whether we address that will change the shape of the economy in quite different ways.

How do we begin to address these problems? What is the role of the federal government and its spending priorities? Shouldn’t the government — in collaboration with the private sector — take an active role in devising policies that attempt to solve these problems?

It is well-known that conflicting needs are pulling the government in two directions. On the one hand, we would like to reduce public spending and lower the national debt. On the other, we would like to underwrite some needed projects and investments, which simultaneously could help stimulate the economy and lower unemployment.

Further, we need discussions about what globalization, robotization, computerization, other technological advances and resource limitations mean for the long term. Will there ever be enough jobs? What standard of living is attainable, practical, and sustainable for our children and grandchildren? Is it possible and realistic (or wise) to maintain an economy that is fueled 70 percent by consumption?

The answers to those questions were coming due before the Wall Street meltdown. So, the meltdown is an emergency within an unfolding reckoning, and the debate about how best to recover from it can’t help but raise all the issues that beg for consideration within the larger, slower crisis.

It is that context that makes the paralysis in Congress so damaging. For with compromise and political skills, we could find many opportunities to remove the waste in government, reduce our military spending, increase tax revenue where it is fair and increase investments — with the private sector — to embark on endeavors that would start to craft a more sustainable economy. But this work would require politicians who won’t threaten to halt all of government itself.


Brian T. Watson of Swampscott is an architect and a Salem News columnist. Contact him at