photo by rob kall

There are issues that are difficult to understand. The mass-endowing properties of a Higgs field, the intricacies of protein folding, the appeal of the Kardashians. There are issues of opinion; issues of faith; issues simply lacking enough facts to reach a confident conclusion. 

The reason the United States faces a huge budget deficit is not one of those issues.  In fact, it's so simple it could be the plot of a children's book. Only this book doesn't have a happy ending.

If you listen to the news, you might think   we  went on a spending spree. You might think we shoved fresh billions into social programs, or gave fat pay raises to government workers, or that there's been some huge expansion of the government bureaucracy. That's  not quite what happened .

President Bush said Saturday that the most important number in the budget he sends to Congress next week is the $5.6 trillion surplus it projects over the next 10 years.

That's not some alternate universe. It's not ancient history. That's the United States just a decade ago.  So what happened?  Well, we didn't hand out huge new benefits, or fix all our crumbling roads and bridges, or address the failing National Parks. Emptying the national pocketbook was a lot easier than that. We gave it away.

We gave away $1.5 trillion in income tax cuts, and here's the fun part.  Over one trillion of that went to the top 5%. Less than 2% of Americans pocketed more than all the rest put together. Another bit of fun: the extensions that have already been made to the cuts will double the cost, with the payout being just as lopsided. 

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Yes, if you look at the total deficit there are actually three components to our economic stew: falling revenues, economic decline, and war. You can also phrase this as tax cuts, deregulation and... war. Short term the price we pay for breaking the barriers between speculation and savings, or for engaging in military adventurism, is higher than the nice check we wrote out to the wealthy. Long term the wars will end and the economy will stumble back to life, but the tax cuts are a wound that's still bleeding; a wound that reduces our ability to address our other ills. It's also a wound that the GOP doesn't want to heal.

There are two reasons for that. One is that it's been consistent GOP policy since at least the time of Nixon to shift the tax burden away from progressive income taxes and onto regressive sales and payroll taxes. Whether it's Steve Forbes waving his "flat tax" proposal or Herman Cain shouting "9-9-9," the central idea of GOP taxation is that the rich should pay less of it and the poor should pay more. They've done a good job of making that happen already. The percentage of revenue that comes from payroll taxes has tripled (while corporate tax revenues have dropped by over 50%). These regressive taxes hit hardest the poor and middle class. You know, the people the GOP constantly claim pay no taxes. Pretending that only federal income tax and federal taxes on capital gains are real, is part of the game. So are all the screams for doing things at the state level. If you've ever wondered why the GOP is so hot on the idea of shifting programs to the states, it's not because they're inspired by antebellum speeches about state's rights or seeking a truer interpretation of the commerce clause. It's because state and local taxes tend to be much more regressive than federal taxes.

The second reason that the GOP throws up a barricade around the tax cuts is because they don't want the government to recover. It's not a secret. After all, the no tax pledge signed by nearly every GOP member of the House was designed explicitly to destroy the government. Famously, to make it small enough to "drown in a bathtub."

It's easy to scream about a Balanced Budget Amendment, but a decade ago we had a balanced budget. Heck, we had a surplus, one that was produced by small but real increases in the top tax rate. It's not the Constitution that changed since then. Nobody slipped in an amendment that forced the government into the red. Given the opportunity, the Republicans did everything they could to make sure that the United States not only doesn't have a balanced budget, but can't attain one because the one tool that can make it all work is the one they will not allow. Again, not a secret. What part of "government is the problem" did you not understand?

It's funny. The Republicans are always talking about American exceptionalism. It's a term they like so well that anyone who won't buy in is considered a pariah. But if America is exceptional, what makes it so? Sure, we have beautiful mountains, but there are mountains in other places. Our forests are pretty, but as the song says...

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My country's skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine.
But other lands have sunlight too and clover,
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
If there is anything that makes America exceptional, it's... our government. In both concept and execution, it's the government of America that was the great experiment, the ultimate gamble on the ability of mankind to hold together as a community.

It's not possible to love America and hate the American government. We are exactly as exception as our government, and exactly as threatened. That thing they're trying to drown... that's us.