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The New Normal is now official; that’s progress, at least

I’ve been hesitating a bit at how to move forward with the President’s 2011 budget request. Like many things, it encompasses both opportunities and threats. We are best served by an ongoing discussion about it. Some of the clearest observations are in the footnotes, the 36 pages of summary tables. And the themes we project upon it reflect our own perspectives as much as anything else.

The core takeaway I’m left with is the fundamental disconnect plaguing our broader approach to governance. We invoke near-apocalyptic language to describe problems, but then the proposed solutions are largely minor tweaks to the system. Our leaders seem to think centrism is a valuable end result in and of itself, rather than a description of what happens through a process of good faith negotiations and honest compromises. Perhaps the first budget submission had needed compromises, transitioning from the Bush years to the Obama Administration. But for FY2011, even that explanation works no more. This budget reflects the priorities of Obama’s team, plain and simple.

Let me quote a couple sentences from the Rescuing the Economy section as an example of this

Facing this economic crisis, the Administration moved swiftly to take a series of extraordinary, but necessary, steps to pull the economy back from the brink. Because of these efforts, the im- mediate crisis has passed, the economy is on the path toward recovery, and we are laying a new foundation for long-term economic growth.

Listen to that first sentence. Economic crisis, moved swiftly, extraordinary but necessary, pulling the economy back from the brink. But in the next breath, those problems are swept aside, as if ARRA (the stimulus) solved everything and we’ve got the foundation for long-term growth, as if there’s nothing that could have been done about huge amounts of preventable suffering, as if our financial system isn’t more consolidated and more risky today than when the ‘crisis’ started. This rhetorical leap interests me greatly, talking up a problem but then not proposing solutions bold enough to match the hyped problem.

We don’t have to make hurried decisions based upon fear. We are a very rich country, and we don’t have to accept the language of economic armageddon invoked by the Bush Administration over the past couple of years. However, there are real needs in our economy. Our goal isn’t simply to propose a budget that’s slightly better than the Bush years. We can be sufficiently bold and visionary to address the fundamental challenges confronting us.

One specific improvement over the Bush years that has been talked about a lot is the more honest, transparent accounting of defense spending. This is good. You can look at Table S-10 of the Summary Tables (pg 173 overall) and read quite clearly three lines on discretionary spending:

Security Agencies: $719.2 billion
Non-Security Agencies: $441.3 billion
Overseas Contingency Operations: $159.3 billion

It’s right there, in black and white, by the team that’s bringing change to Washington, that’s going to do things differently than the Bush Administration.

That should be a scandalous proposition. Yet it’s what a Democratic Administration has sent to a Democratic Congress. It’s not even remotely close to a compromise. It’s centrist or moderate only by DC standards. There, easy enough for anyone to read, is the suggestion that security, or defense, or the military, or whatever word you prefer, should be allocated twice as much money as all other discretionary spending combined. Indeed, once you stare at that a second, it’s hard not to notice that it’s almost exactly twice as much, as if that was a purposeful ratio. And of course, that doesn’t count interest on the debt incurred due to previous military spending from the Reagan-Bush years, an interest payment amount of a quarter trillion dollars that is itself now larger than every discretionary non-security agency in the government. In fact, it’s larger than the combined budget proposals for Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Energy, Interior, Justice, Labor, EPA, GSA, NASA, and the NSF.

I’m headed somewhere else with the title of this post, however, beyond the now-habitual ritual of observing that our defense spending is way out of proportion to the rest of the discretionary budget. Mostly, I’m interested in what we’re not spending. For as military outlays demonstrate beyond what any Republican temper tantrums can possibly argue to the contrary, we as a society simply have no problem with massive federal programs. We hardly even have the words to describe how huge our federal spending on the military has been over the past few decades. Security outlays have subsections that are larger than the entire budgets of domestic agencies. The request for GWOT/Long War/OCO, by itself, is larger than the requests of every single non-security agency. Specific DOD components, like the Missile Defense Agency, or intelligence agencies, like the NSA, have appropriations requests as large as entire non-security agencies. That’s not to say airborne lasers and data mining aren’t cool, in their places, just a statement about the scale of resources allocated to various areas. Think about that the next time some GOP blowhard blathers on about science funding.

There simply is no reason why we can’t invest similarly in the myriad of domestic priorities which Americans consistently prioritize more highly. What’s noticeable to me is that the 2011 budget doesn’t propose anything bold or visionary to invest in these other major policy areas, like wages & jobs, environmental protection, infrastructure, education, or energy. No, I’m not saying there’s no spending along those lines. I’m saying there’s nothing to match the language invoked over the past couple years about how fragile our situation was claimed to be or how vital it was to change our priorities. We are basically saying we’re at a new normal. Where we’re at today is acceptable. The Obama Administration projects unemployment to still be over 8% in 2012. Millions of Americans will remain ineligible for unemployment insurance. Our wealth is more concentrated now than ever. Our sewer and water systems, roads and bridges, locks and levees, schools and libraries, passenger and freight rail networks, parks and and wilderness areas, are aging and deteriorating. We’re not even maintaining what we have, let alone making things better.

We’ll make some tweaks, shift some things around at the margins, but it’s pretty much the Reagan-Bush status quo for years into the future.

Is that really the best strategy for electing more and better Democrats, never mind meeting the challenges of the 21st century? At the end of the day, it’s up to us to collectively remind our leaders that what we need is change, not more of the same. We’re not afraid of a bold vision for the future. We seek it.

You can read these words all over again at Daily Kos

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