Thursday, September 22, 2011

Forests and Trees

One of the most disheartening things about following politics is the way in which our national discourse completely avoids relevant topics in favor of straw men. Two current issues highlight this absurd kabuki in an especially stark fashion: The Warren Buffet tax, and the balancing of the federal budget. First though, a pie chart courtesy of The Atlantic.

When I first saw a visual breakdown of federal expenditures, I was mildly shocked. Years of consuming left-oriented media had predisposed me to thinking that most federal money went towards the military and corporations (and of course medical clinics that won't give a gay man an abortion for religious reasons), while years of exposure to right-oriented opionators had lead to a belief that the federal govt. spends all our tax dollars on bridges to Terabithia and art exhibits featuring carefully crafted scale models of Jesus being eaten by Republicans. Now, this data can be fudged a bit, but the basic takeaway is that Military, Medical, and Redistribution (Social Security + Unemployment + Welfare) make up the lion's share of what our federal tax dollars go towards.

So what does this mean with regards to the Warren Buffet tax (the supposed tax on super-rich people who supposedly pay less tax money than the middle class)? Firstly, it means that the "do your part because you've benefited from the system" argument is pretty much bullshit. There's been a fun infographic posted on the facefriend the last few days with a quote from Elizabeth Warren talking about how the wealthy have used roads, public education (of the employees that work for them), as well as the protection of police and fire departments and the military to support the factories (wtf?) that have made the wealthy so, well, wealthy. A cursory look at how much federal cash goes to infrastructure and education makes that part of the argument fall apart, a basic understanding of the relationship between local and federal govt. melts the face off of the police and fire dept. argument, and leaves us with military spending and the rich doing their part. For the sake of argument, let's pretend that the last 50 years didn't happen and that the wealthiest Americans generate their wealth through the factories that they own, and that only the US military stands between profits and the Kaiser's invading army. If the purpose of our military is to protect our soil (and its myriad of factories) from foreign invasion, we can comfortably cut our entire federal military and rely entirely on our National Guard. When you cut through the bullshit and straw men, people (like Elizabeth Warren) are arguing that our wealthiest need to have their taxes raised (which is impossible, but that's a whole other blog post) to help us pay for the parts of our budget that we don't need help paying for.

As bad as the class-warfare grandstanding is, it pales in comparison to the balancing the budget non-discussion. Take another look at that pie chart. Now stroke your beard and consider where the federal budget has room for cuts. Anti-war folks will be happy to point out that there's a ton of room for austerity in the military budget, and they would be correct. Conservatives and libertarians however, are much more likely to say something to the affect of "let's cut waste in govt.," which is, frankly, preposterous. We're $14 Trillion (that's a T) in debt right now. A large part of that is thanks to the bipartisan medicare expansion back when Bush II was president, but most of it is because the baby boomers didn't have enough children and are starting to retire in a nation without enough workers to fuel the twin Ponzi schemes of Social Security and Medicare/Medicade. If calling it a Ponzi scheme is too harsh, we should call it what it really is: generational theft. I got some hot water a while back by proposing an argument that people who do not have children are immoral. It's not up to me to define morality, fortunately, but it is apparently up to me to point out that people who don't have kids, but then rely on everyone else's kids to support them in their old age make our system untenable. We decided to create Social Security and Medicare to take care of people in their old age, which meant that the traditional old age insurance policy of having a ton of kids (if you have enough of them, odds are one will be successful enough to take care of you) was unnecessary. Now a system that would have comfortably taken care of the minority of Americans who didn't have kids suddenly has to shoulder the burden of the largest, most narcissistic generation ever. But instead of addressing this issue, our great political minds are busy discussing military cuts and trimming of the federal fat. To borrow the President's car analogy, it's as if our car has veered into a ditch, ejecting the engine and the Democrats are furiously trying to tape the passenger's side mirror back on while the Republicans are energetically attempting to remove a scratch in the paint with some turtle wax. What's worse is that when someone identifies the actual problem, like Paul Ryan and Rick Perry have done, they get the full Salem 1692 treatment. If the US government were a private company, it would be going out of business right now. There are structural issues in the tax/revenue/spending system that have already done significant damage to our prosperity and need to be reformed immediately. The system cannot continue long-term with the flaws it have, but it's looking increasingly likely that things will have to get much worse before they start getting better.


  1. So basically old people are sucking more of our money than evil politicians and corporations ever could?

  2. They're about to. Graphs of US population by age are downright scary when you consider how much $$ it's going to cost to keep SS and Medicare/aid flowing to the boomers as they retire. It's a completely apolitical issue though (or it should be). It's not an opinion or a belief, just a simple mathematical fact. A ton of left-wing economists were calling out the exact same issues back in the day, but have sorta quieted down now that the Democrats are using the issue as a political cudgel.

  3. The colors on that graph make it harder to read. As a GWOT supporter I'm not a big fan of new weapons systems which are often politically based - shoved down the throats of the Joint Chiefs by congresscritters who want the work done in their districts. So we can cut those - but as you see procurement is dwarfed by Vet Benefits & Pay - no go areas for most GWOT heads.

    I always get a laugh by people who want to cut foreign aid. They think it's a big part of the budget but it's not as shown by the graph. As someone who has lived abroad I think that in general we get more out of that aid than we put in - when it is directed to our friends and not our enemies (and when those who receive it are punished for acting as the latter rather than the former ahem PAKISTAN).