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Tomgram: Mattea Kramer, A Recipe for American Decline That No One Will Be Debating

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Cross-posted from Tom Dispatch


With that jutting jaw of steel, think of him as the next Clark Kent, hence also Superman, promising to save our world (don't worry about just how). Opposite him, imagine Chris Pine as James T. Kirk, commander of the rebooted USS Enterprise, promising (repeatedly) to boldly go where no man has gone before. Or call it Romney v. Obama in "The Debates," and imagine them as what they are: two actors preparing to take on monumental TV roles this October.  Both of them, like the performers they have to be in the coming productions that are by now essential to the entertainment spectacle of an American presidential campaign, have been rehearsing for months.  They have conducted numerous "mock debates" in which Ohio Senator Rob Portman plays Obama for Romney (as he did in 2008 for John McCain), and Senator John Kerry -- the Romney of the 2004 campaign -- appropriately plays Romney for Team Obama.

For these crucial roles, they must both become card-carrying deficit-slashers, tax cutters, retarders of government growth, job creators, preservers of Medicare, national-security funders par excellence, fierce defenders of Israel, and men ready to do whatever must be done to prevent Iran from going nuclear. They must, that is, become perfect fictions. And though the debates are still upcoming, both presidential candidates recently had an out-of-town preview on "60 Minutes," where, interviewed separately, each confirmed one crucial thing: that it's possible to spend a great deal of time on TV and tell an audience almost nothing.

The key issues in what passes for American political debate are simple enough: Which performer will flub his lines?  Who will commit the most memorable "gaffe"? Who is most "believable" or looks most "presidential"? Which one would you most want to have a beer with? Which do you feel "understands" your problems best? The audiences for the three presidential debates will be astronomical, reaching into the many tens of millions -- the second debate in the 2008 campaign drew 63.2 million viewers -- which means that this will be a "reality" show of the highest order. In the end, one of the two men will get evicted from the (White) House, voted off the island that is Washington.

This guarantees, of course, that as little of actual American reality will be on display as is humanly possible. As a result, TomDispatch turns to National Priority Project's Mattea Kramer, lead author of A People's Guide to the Federal Budget, to suggest just what the upcoming all-too-mock debates are sure not to talk about -- exactly the subjects that anyone interested in the future of this country would have to discuss. Tom

Tough Talk for America 
A Guide to the Presidential Debates You Won't Hear 
By Mattea Kramer

Five big things will decide what this country looks like next year and in the 20 years to follow, but here's a guarantee for you: you're not going to hear about them in the upcoming presidential debates. Yes, there will be questions and answers focused on deficits, taxes, Medicare, the Pentagon, and education, to which you already more or less know the responses each candidate will offer. What you won't get from either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama is a little genuine tough talk about the actual state of reality in these United States of ours. And yet, on those five subjects, a little reality would go a long way, while too little reality (as in the debates to come) is a sure-fire recipe for American decline.

So here's a brief guide to what you won't hear this Wednesday or in the other presidential and vice-presidential debates later in the month.  Think of these as five hard truths that will determine the future of this country.

1. Immediate deficit reduction will wipe out any hope of economic recovery: These days, it's fashionable for any candidate to talk about how quickly he'll reduce the federal budget deficit, which will total around $1.2 trillion in fiscal 2012. And you're going to hear talk about the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan and more like it on Wednesday. But the hard truth of the matter is that deep deficit reduction anytime soon will be a genuine disaster. Think of it this way: If you woke up tomorrow and learned that Washington had solved the deficit crisis and you'd lost your job, would you celebrate? Of course not. And yet, any move to immediately reduce the deficit does increase the likelihood that you will lose your job.

When the government cuts spending, it lays off workers and cancels orders for all sorts of goods and services that would generate income for companies in the private sector. Those companies, in turn, lay off workers, and the negative effects ripple through the economy. This isn't atomic science. It's pretty basic stuff, even if it's evidently not suitable material for a presidential debate. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service predicted in a September report, for example, that any significant spending cuts in the near-term would contribute to an economic contraction. In other words, slashing deficits right now will send us ever deeper into the Great Recession from which, at best, we've scarcely emerged.

Champions of immediate deficit reduction are likely to point out that unsustainable deficits aren't good for the economy. And that's true -- in the long run. Washington must indeed plan for smaller deficits in the future. That will, however, be a lot easier to accomplish when the economy is healthier, since government spending declines when fewer people qualify for assistance, and tax revenues expand when the jobless go back to work. So it makes sense to fix the economy first. The necessity for near-term recovery spending paired with long-term deficit reduction gets drowned out when candidates pack punchy slogans into flashes of primetime TV.

2.  Taxes are at their lowest point in more than half a century, preventing investment in, and the maintenance of, America's most basic resources:  Hard to believe? It's nonetheless a fact. By now, it's a tradition for candidates to compete on just how much further they'd lower taxes and whether they'll lower them for everyone or just everyone but the richest of the rich. That's a super debate to listen to, if you're into fairy tales. It's not as thrilling if you consider that Americans now enjoy the lightest tax burden in more than five decades, and it happens to come with a hefty price tag on an item labeled "the future." There is no way the U.S. can maintain a world-class infrastructure -- we're talking levees, highways, bridges, you name it -- and a public education system that used to be the envy of the world, plus many other key domestic priorities, on the taxes we're now paying.

Anti-tax advocates insist that we should cut taxes even more to boost a flagging economy -- an argument that hits the news cycle nearly every hour and that will shape the coming TV "debate." As the New York Times recently noted, however, tax cuts might have been effective in giving the economy a lift decades ago when tax rates were above 70%. (And no, that's not a typo, that's what your parents and grandparents paid without much grumbling.) With effective tax rates around 14% for Mitt Romney and many others, further cuts won't hasten job creation, just the hollowing out of public investment in everything from infrastructure to education. Right now, the negative effects of tax increases on the most well-off would be small -- read: not a disaster for "job creators" -- and those higher rates would bring in desperately-needed revenue. Tax increases for middle-class Americans should arrive when the economy is stronger.

Right now, the situation is clear: we're simply not paying enough to fund the basic ingredients of prosperity from highways and higher education to medical research and food safety. Without those funds, this country's future won't be pretty.

3.  Neither the status quo nor a voucher system will protect Medicare (or any other kind of health care) in the long run:  When it comes to Medicare, Mitt Romney has proposed a premium-support program that would allow seniors the option of buying private insurance. President Obama wants to keep Medicare more or less as it is for retirees. Meanwhile, the ceaseless rise in health-care costs is eating up the wages of regular Americans and the federal budget. Health care now accounts for a staggering 24% of all federal spending, up from 7% less than 40 years ago. Governor Romney's plan would shift more of those costs onto retirees, according to David Cutler, a health economist at Harvard, while President Obama says the federal government will continue to pick up the tab. Neither of them addresses the underlying problem.

Here's reality: Medicare could be significantly protected by cutting out waste. Our health system is riddled with unnecessary tests and procedures, as well as poorly coordinated care for complex health problems. This country spent $2.6 trillion on health care in 2010, and some estimates suggest that a staggering 30% of that is wasted. Right now, our health system rewards quantity, not quality, but it doesn't have to be that way. Instead of paying for each test and procedure, Medicare could pay for performance and give medical professionals a strong incentive to provide more efficient and coordinated care. President Obama's health law actually pilot tests such an initiative. But that's another taboo topic this election season, so he scarcely mentions it. Introducing such change into Medicare and the rest of our health system would save the federal government tens of billions of dollars annually. It would truly preserve Medicare for future generations, and it would improve the affordability of health coverage for everyone under 65 as well. Too bad it's not even up for discussion.

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 Sir,  Would you elaborate ?  My fe... by Ad Du on Monday, Oct 1, 2012 at 11:16:43 AM
Mattea Kramer is quite correct....these points wil... by Sandra Dwyer on Wednesday, Oct 3, 2012 at 8:03:52 AM