By BOB HERBERT – New York Times.
One in five American kids was living in poverty in 2009. Across the country, once solidly middle-class families are lining up at food pantries and soup kitchens for groceries or a hot meal. In New York City, a startling indicator of the continuing economic stress is the rise in the number of homes that don’t have kitchens.
Election Day is approaching, but neither party cares to focus on the nightmare facing millions of Americans who have been laid low by unemployment, home foreclosures, personal bankruptcies, and jobs that offer only part-time work, lousy pay and absolutely no benefits.
In an era of extreme economic inequality (which is another way of saying economic unfairness), Wall Street can be on a roll and corporate profits can streak toward the moon at the same time that ordinary American families are stuck in depressionlike conditions with precious little hope of relief.
The Democrats are trying to put the best possible face on this terrible economic reality, imploring voters to give them a little credit for preventing matters from becoming much worse. No matter how valid, that’s a tough case to make to families whose properties are being plastered with foreclosure notices. Or to the breadwinners whose 99 weeks of unemployment insurance have been exhausted without anything in the way of a decent job materializing. Or the former middle managers now working for peanuts at Home Depot or Wal-Mart.
But at least the Democrats are still rooted in the real world. The Republicans, when they aren’t behaving as though they’ve lost their minds completely (see O’Donnell, Angle, Paladino, et al.), are peddling a fantasy that has already damaged the country profoundly. The party’s ludicrous “Pledge to America” promises to reduce federal budget deficits while, among other things, making all of the Bush-era tax cuts permanent and jacking up already insanely high defense costs.
The pledge is as dangerous as it is transparent. Economists have calculated that the tax cuts alone will cost nearly $4 trillion over the next decade.
These are the very same G.O.P. operatives who have spent years frantically looting the U.S. Treasury on behalf of their corporate masters, and they can’t wait to get another crack at it. As John Boehner, one of the ring leaders, put it: “We are not going to be any different than what we’ve been.”
What is especially weird is that while they are pushing plans guaranteed to increase budget deficits, the G.O.P. is united in opposition to investments in the economy that would put Americans back to work, revitalize sagging industries and eventually provide the taxes that are crucial to actually getting a handle on deficits.
Weirder still is that even Democrats who should know better are buying into this self-defeating austerity posture. More than 300 economists, including Robert Reich, the former labor secretary, have signed onto a public statement urging policy makers not to undercut any real chance at a recovery by focusing prematurely on deficit reduction. What are needed instead are prudent, sensible investments, especially in infrastructure, research and development, and green energy initiatives.
The statement, released by the liberal Institute for America’s Future, noted that President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform would like to reduce the federal deficit to 3 percent of the gross domestic product by 2015. That’s not realistic. It’s not going to happen.
More important is the following point made by the institute in its statement:
“At the end of World War II, the U.S. was burdened with debt that totaled over 120 percent of G.D.P. But we made the investments vital to a new economy — the G.I. Bill, housing subsidies, the interstate highway system, the conversion of military plants, and the Marshall plan. We ran annual deficits over most of the next three decades and the debt grew in absolute size, but the economy and the broad middle class grew faster. By 1980, the debt had been reduced to barely 30 percent of G.D.P.”
There is no doubt that the country, starved for revenues and still at war, will have to increase some taxes. Unnecessary spending should be attacked. But the nation is still in the throes of an economic crisis. Poverty is growing and the middle class is shrinking, and more than 20 million Americans are out of work or underemployed.
We can pretend that all of this is not happening and that there won’t be grave consequences as a result. We can cling to the Ronald Reagan-George W. Bush fairy tale that handing over ever more riches to those who are already rich and powerful is the way to revitalize the American dream.
Or we can take our cue from the best moments in American history, when the nation rolled up its sleeves and placed the interests of ordinary people at the top of its agenda.