Thursday, December 16, 2010

Can Common Sense and Bravery Fix Our Economy?

When we begin with the basic idea that "there's is simply nothing to be done" as we consider the terrible debt we face as a nation, too many political gizmos spring into action before the problem can even become well defined.  There is no shortage of both hyperbole and resignation prepared to instantly flood the discussion, sending it reeling back into its habitual state of stasis.

MeanMesa suspects that the GOP actually printed an immense mountain of  campaign literature touting tax cuts and less spending some decades ago, and since then, has only returned to the warehouse for more at each election cycle.  For the same decades, Democrats have never again found the focus of effort which made some previous reformers so successful.

At this point, MeanMesa is also not convinced that irresolute spending must continue to re-start the economy after the Great Republican Recession of 2007.  The general idea may have serious merit, but the hordes of budgetary peccadillos now firmly ensconced in the Federal budget -- each one well protected by its own special guard -- seem more than capable of permanently deflecting any attempt at quick fixes.

Each one becomes an issue of "whose ox is to be gored."

So, shall we simply surrender, keep borrowing money until the well is dry, then face our final fate in a desolate, bankrupt wasteland?  Maybe not.

MeanMesa would like to present a plan.

The Dysfunctional Senate, The New Yorker, Aug. 6, 2010 (image source)

The Warning

We can begin by delaying action for a pre-determined period to be announced at the very outset.  The most recent mantra of the conservatives has had everything to do with predictability, so by announcing the time line early, all the players can enjoy the inevitable prediction that the change is coming.

Further, the first elements of the change can accompany the announcement.  That change will be a blanket reduction in every Federal check for anything, under any circumstances, regardless of political sponsorship.  The reduction should start at around 2%.  This figure will become the base reduction, and it will apply to the price of blood in operating rooms in equal measure to the most deceptive style of oil industry subsidy.

2% minimum.  Period.

The "Menu" for the Congress

Once the postponement has passed, the Congress should cancel its vacations for a term or two and get busy with some real cost cutting.

The CBO can prepare a simplified, educational form which presents the entire US Federal budget in understandable terms.  The actual budget being used by the House in its typical spending plans is upwards of a thousand pages -- even in a good year.  When the "snakes are home," it gets even longer than that.

Instead of a legalese "chart of accounts" ranging into the thousands, this version of the budget will have a pre-determined number of such division, say 500.  This "upper limit" will be important because it will set the scope of the task to be undertaken.  For those masochists among the public interested in even more detail, an explanatory pamphlet can be provided for each of the 500 categories.

This means that each of the 500 categories will, even in its shorter form, have a total.  The sum of those totals will, of course, equal the Federal budget.  Of course, we would be dreaming if we didn't assume that significant voices would begin whining at once, claiming that some specific part of one of the 500 actually belonged in another part.

Oh well.  Totals are totals.

The Meat Grinder

At this point, the House of Representatives will begin preparing a series of bills, 500 to be exact.  Considering the accounts one at a time, they can debate how much more than the 2% base they wish to cut from each total.  This debate will not be particularly one concerning the "pros and cons" of the "value" of the specific expense, but rather a discussion centered solely on whether or not -- and how much -- the respective totals are to be lowered.

After all, every part of this stuff was, apparently, critically necessary at some point in the past.  Why resurrect all that debate when the focus is on the totals?

At the moment the House began this deliberation, nothing in the entire Federal budget was funded.  As the debate proceeds, each of the 500 accounts will be funded under the budget bill created for each account.  This means that there will be 500 individual bills forwarded to the Senate and later, to the President.

In each of the 500 debates, the American people can watch their Representatives make the hard decisions about the, uh, "ox goring."  In each case, the voters can see where the cuts were limited to the 2% base and where they were increased.  The voters can also watch to see just who voted for which spending cuts, making the next election somewhat livelier than usual, at least, given the number of oxen to be gored, somewhat bloodier.

Of course, the first inclination of the Legislature would be to mire the process in a terminal bog with procedural delays -- some actual, but probably most, strategic -- which would promise to extend the task for decades.  The idea here is that the entire body would, at the beginning, agree to handle all 500 bills before the term expired.  Any Legislator voting against that would do so at his own peril.

No amount of Citizens United money would be able to protect such a miscreant during the next election.  The same fate would await those in the Senate who took advantage of the arcane rules of that body to attempt the same delays.  The government will either act to solve this problem or not.  If the answer is "not," we voters should have a chance to elect a new government.

The majority of Americans, made desperate now by the inability to act in the government, would not tolerate any more maneuvering on such an important duty.  MeanMesa does not categorize this presumption as "wishful thinking," either.

There would be "no place to hide" for Congressman, Senator or President.  One bill after another would begin its journey through a chastened government.  The decisions for budget cutting would each carry an intrinsic threat, not particularly based on the nature of the cuts so much as on the dictate of cooperation demanded by the citizens.

Endless media deceptions, inflammatory rhetoric and breathless pundits would be gratefully endured.  Somewhere around the 100th bill, these "marginally patriotic" sponsors of confusion and division would probably run out of gas.  Perhaps an unanticipated benefit for the country would arise from a dwindling interest in these "nose bleed" peddlers.

The Publicity

The abbreviated form of the budget categories would be widely publicised in preparation of the Congressional review.  At this point, we could anticipate  the early "screaming stage" where every line item in the mix would become something between a desperate necessity, a sacred cow or an outrageous waste.

Once the budget review began, perhaps the media could be enticed to cover the proceedings.  In any case, most of the events driving the usual trash news from Washington would be swallowed up in the process.  Citizens could keep "score cards" which would record how much had been cut from the budget, haw such decisions had been reached and who had voted to cooperate with the program and who hadn't.

Much effort has been directed at convincing Americans that they could not possibly understand the complexities of our national budget, that is was a ghostly, mysterious matter which could only be fully comprehended by economic experts.  Considered in this way, the national budget audit would present a continuing part of President Obama's goal of revitalizing interest in the things which really matter to us as country.  The interest in politics has certainly been revitalized already, and this effort would do the same for our budget.

All kinds of useful changes might emerge from the task, too.  For one, many of the obstacles currently paralyzing any effort to reform tax policy might lose some of their sting.  Uninformed, mindless bitching about the hopeless nature of our economic woes might be replaced by more involved attitudes which were more inclined toward action than doleful resignation.  The misinformation campaigns so intent on polarizing the country with imaginary threats and opportunities might finally begin to actually touch the earth below their "feet of clay."

Finally, we have to ask ourselves the question:  "Is this too much to expect from the ones we've elected?"

The answer to that has to be "no."

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