About the time when Ronald Reagan declared that ketchup was a vegetable, I had an argument with my dad about the importance of the federal school lunch program. He, like many Republicans, was afraid that people who weren’t “truly needy” would get something for nothing – something they didn’t deserve. I said I’d rather see every kid get a free lunch than have one kid go hungry, and besides, in the grand scheme of things the school lunch program didn’t cost very much.
He didn’t believe me until that night (I’m not kidding) when we were watching a TV news story about the cost of military bands. You know, the kind that keeps John Philip Sousa’s legacy alive and gets our feet tapping right down to the army recruiter’s. When the reporter stated that it cost more to support one military band than the entire school lunch program, Dad, a WWII veteran, looked at me and said, “I guess I see your point.”
Decades later, Washington is still having the same argument. The problem is, there are no Republicans left who are willing to say “I guess I see your point.”
Instead, they have a new refrain that goes like this: “We’re broke.”
We can’t afford schools, let alone school lunches, or unions, or home heating programs or health care or family planning or public broadcasting or loan programs for small businesses or high speed rail. We can’t afford it, we’re broke.
“We’re broke,” resonates with the public like the analogies between the federal budget and your family budget. But the government isn’t broke – broken – but not broke. It has money to sponsor Nascar, to support two endless wars, to make lavish gifts in the form of tax cuts to the people who already have everything, to provide subsidies to big pharma and big farms and big oil and yes, to support over 150 separate military bands.
If the Republicans were your daddy, and they certainly like to pretend they are, they’d be telling you that we can’t afford to pay your tuition because we just bought a new Hummer with your college funds. You’re on your own, kid. (And BTW, if you hadn’t spent the last 12 years with your nose in a book, you could have been out there mopping floors like I did. Nobody ever gave me anything.)
When your family’s expenses exceed your income, you have two choices: 1) Earn more money or 2) Cut your expenditures. This is one way in which the government and your family ARE alike. But Republican lawmakers are pretending that there is only one choice: to cut spending. And how do they cut? Not by cutting the big expenditures like the military or honestly acknowledging that the only way to truly rein in health care costs is through a single-payer system.
Republicans cut costs, not by curtailing the pork going to the cats that are already fat; they cut costs by firing the janitor. And the truth is, the government has many more revenue-generating options than your family does.
Unlike you, the government can print money. Also unlike you, when the government wants a raise, it can simply give itself one. The so-called crisis looming in Social Security is no such thing. All the government has to do is eliminate the $106,000 salary cap – make everyone pay social security taxes on every dollar they earn – and the problem is solved without increasing the retirement age. And although it’s a mystery to me who can afford to live on Social Security, we should want people to retire because our kids need their jobs so they can pay off the student loans they had to take out because even public university tuition has become unaffordable to anyone but the rich.
But it’s really not about the jobs or the economy or even the future debt our children will have to pay. It’s about the power, stupid.
Republicans are great at reducing the most complex issues to simple scary slogans. This is easy when facts are irrelevant: Universal healthcare = death panels. Regulation of the financial industry = government takeover. Fiscal responsibility = we’re broke.
The Republican Party has become the political equivalent of fast food. If they really cared about our children’s future, they’d be promoting a diet of universal health care, excellent schools, thoughtful foreign policy and responsible environmental regulation. But they’d rather give us ketchup, and the more ketchup they give us, the less we can see what’s underneath.