Battle of the Budget Bulge: Living Within Our Means?

Published in The Huffington Post

Over the past few weeks I have followed, with something oscillating between frustrated interest and frustrated apathy, what now passes for political theater. Or, I should say, budget-minded theater, for never has a topic of debate so fitted its mode.

What bothers me most is not that the show contains thousands of actors and critics performing on thousands of stages, making coherent debate impossible, relegating revues of Simpson’s Bowels to off-off-Broadway matinees, and leaving each potentially useful turn — first a soliloquy by Ryan and then one by Obama — quickly clouded with the dust kicked up by its champion’s clumsy steps;

Nor that the scripts are staid and timid, relying on platitudes such as “this is difficult,” “we have to face facts,” and “we have to live within our means;”

Nor that the actors are disingenuous, dancing around truth or refusing to dance with it at all (and, just to keep this overdone metaphor consistent, I’ll drop this aside: characters can lie (i.e. ideas can be wrong); actors shouldn’t).

One need only listen to Brian Lehrer’s April 6th interview of Marsha Blackburn on his public radio (read: Death Star) show to get the idea. The host repeatedly queries the Congresswoman about the Ryan plan’s effect on class inequality and repeatedly receives long-winded much ados about nothing. Note to politicians regarding a position: If you don’t know, you shouldn’t be talking; if you know and don’t want to say, you shouldn’t be taking (the position).

Nor are what bothered me most those items straddling the past two categories; duck-billed platitudes that aren’t actually mammalian at all, such as “closing loopholes.” Who can argue with closing loopholes? And why argue at all with a misused phrase?

Namely, a tax loophole is not equivalent to a tax deduction. A tax loophole is a method used to game the tax code in a way the law did not intend. As such, eliminating a tax deduction used as the law intended isn’t closing a loophole — it’s just changing the tax code. Not that there’s anything wrong with changing the tax code, but it should be referred to as that and not as a marsupial.

Nor is it the fascinating ability of politicians to discuss tax cuts in a mathematical vacuum, as if tax rates interact with nothing else on stage. For example, while the wisdom of a tax cut/hike in the midst of a period of growth/recession is discussed, the differences between a tax change’s effects on a period of growth and its effects on a recession are ignored.

Also left out is that cutting taxes from 35% to 25% is nothing like cutting taxes from 75% to 65%. I am surprised, with the never-ending bounty that tax cuts (especially on the wealthy) are said to provide, that we have not yet pushed them down to zero. Or better yet, decided that the wealthy, rather than pay any taxes, should be given “business starting incentives.” You know, like the handouts we give the oil and gas industries (with the bonus of the zero tax rate we give G.E.).

I have heard serious suggestions that people will not start small businesses if there is a tax hike. Really? They’ll just fold up tent and sulk? Move their families abroad to the hundreds of better business environments with lower tax rates that apparently exist and suit their specific business plans? I understand suggestions that a tax hike would reduce money in the private sector available to start/expand a business, but to suggest that people will say it isn’t worth it to start a small business at all because of a tax hike, while perhaps true at the margins, is rabble-rousing. I know many people starting and expanding small businesses and a tax hike on the wealthy is the last thing they fear — in fact, they aspire to succeed enough for a hike to affect them.

Nor is it the pettiness of it all, squabbling to keep the government open over an amount that could be overshadowed by a minute increase in the government’s borrowing rates. An increase the debate itself, if it leads to trepidation regarding Congress’s ability to ever balance the budget or its willingness to raise debt ceilings as needed, could cause.

What bothers me most… wait for it… is that the debate is about entirely something else than it claims to be. Return to the revolutionary, insightful phrase we were recently taught: “live within our means.” What are our means, really? Are they numbers in congressional bills? Numbers our online bank accounts display? Pieces of paper? These are but (poor) representations of our true means: the resources the planet affords us and that we waste — err consume — and are encouraged to waste by the government in order to grow our economy like some chart-shaped chia pet.

And so we are told to live within our monetary means, yet, rather than being told to also live within our environmental means, we are encouraged to live outside of them — as if there is an outside to this planet, as if an economy would even be possible without the environment. How can an entire debate be held about our means without any sort of acknowledgment of, let alone a reckoning with, what our true means are? The only references to resources come in attempts to defund the EPA or in oil mantras, (un)naturally, such as: “we have to reduce our dependence on foreign (read: middle eastern) sources of oil.”

I am not saying that debate about our nation’s budget is a waste of time, just that we cannot have it without at least acknowledging what balancing our true budget entails. To do otherwise only works to distance us from reality — to obscure our environmental responsibilities with yet another layer of human exceptionalism; the debate becomes, to quote the famous line, “just some stuff, said by some politician, full of bluster and angry stuff, signifying squat.”


As I have jumped into the deep end of fantasy I might as well drown. Imagine a debate where it is assumed our planet’s resources are limited (I know, a stretch), and have to be rationed somehow (“oh wait,” you are thinking, “that’s crazy talk,” you say, as you clutch your iPad with one hand and hide your iPhone with the other).

Say we assume that each person is born with the right to consume the same amount and pollute the same amount and has the same responsibilities to recycle as much as possible — so that we arrive at some sort of allowed net planetary usage per person. If one has accumulated paper wealth, then one can purchase some planetary usage credits from the less monetarily prosperous.

Sound familiar? It’s cap and trade for individuals, expanded to include all resources and pollutants, with the added benefit of income redistribution — two for one! And, while at this point in our continued planetary despoiling individual cap and trade is not logistically feasible, and the end is too distant for anything remotely resembling it to even seem necessary, the ideas inherent in this plan, that our planet is limited and our environmental means, the means which should need no specifying modifier, must be lived within, should at least inform our budget-balancing battle.


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