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Bottom Kill of Teacher Jobs, Health Care for the Poor

We now know about the failure of the top kill in the Gulf, ensuring the continued gusher of oil into the Gulf of Mexico for at least the near future. Almost nobody in America knows about the “bottom kill” pulled off by the House of Representatives late on Friday. Deficit hawk Democrats forced the excising of two health care-related programs – a subsidy for the jobless to keep them on the insurance of their former employer, and increased funding for state Medicaid programs so they can keep up with increased demand during a time of mass unemployment – because they feared the price tag and the cost to the deficit in the short term. The only long-term measures in that same bill would lower the deficit by closing a host of tax loopholes, and every honest economist knows that short-term deficit spending is deeply necessary to put millions of Americans back to work. But these mundane truths had no sway over self-styled “fiscal conservatives” whose actions will necessarily blunt recovery or reverse it altogether. We already see this with the latest economic statistics – consumer spending is flat, median wages are stagnant, and job security remains tenuous. Here’s Robert Reich:

“Members who are from low unemployment areas are very concerned about the deficit,” Nancy Pelosi explained. She might have added that so-called Blue Dog Democrats have the same warped view of fiscal policy as most Republicans. They fail to distinguish between short-term deficits (good) and long-term debt (bad) […]

Without consumers opening their wallets, and without government making up the difference, we’re careening toward a double-dip recession. The long-term deficit (i.e. Medicare as boomers become seniors) needs attention, but right now it’s critical for government to spend. Otherwise we have no hope of getting free of the gravitational pull of this recession.

Adding further injury, the proposal from Tom Harkin and George Miller to spend $23 billion dollars keeping teachers employed looks dead and buried, for the same reasons that the COBRA subsidy and state aid for Medicaid went by the wayside. State budget shortfalls could cost up to 900,000 jobs this year alone. Critics claim the aid wasn’t attached to enough education “reform” (good for the normally conservative LA Times editorial board for slapping down the nonsense that there’s some magic bullet in education policy that properly assesses teacher contributions to learning and achievement), but the only way to improve schools in the immediate term is to fund their continued operations.

It’s rare to put these policy arguments into moral terms, but I’m going to give it a try. The two biggest programs chopped away by the deficit scolds dealt with health care. As a result, more jobless Americans will have to drop their COBRA and move into an individual market which they certainly cannot afford in the near term (at least not until 2014, with the advent of the exchanges). They could try to join Medicaid, but without federal aid, the states will likely increase eligibility requirements and drop existing subscribers, let along add people to the rolls. And so hundreds of thousands, if not millions, more Americans will be left without health insurance. And we know from studies that 45,000 Americans die each year at least in part because of a lack of health insurance. Some of those put into this bind will be from those 300,000 teachers laid off because of lack of funds in their school districts.

That’s why I call this a bottom kill; namely, the bottom rung of society. A non-trivial number of Americans will die because of the actions of the Congress this week. They’ll die because they cannot afford to go to a doctor and seek medical treatment. The refrain from deficit scolds is that we cannot push the burden of debt onto our children and grandchildren. As a result of their actions, thousands of Americans WON’T HAVE CHILDREN AND GRANDCHILDREN, or will have orphaned them, because they’ll be dead.

Many commentators took a lot of heat for rhetoric like this during the health care debate. That didn’t make their claims false, nor does it change the facts in this case. Blue Dogs in the House signed the death warrants of thousands of Americans this week because they have some invented mania about short-term deficits that doesn’t match reality. They don’t see it that way because we’ve privileged the moral argument solely for other hot-button issues. But a budget is a moral document. And Blue Dogs have chosen to kill rather than protect.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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