Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 5.26.11

Its Not a Deficit; Its Robbery
by Gordon Lafer

If I hear one more rich person complain about how we cant afford healthcare or education for the little people, Im going to shoot someone.

“Were tapped out,” cries millionaire heiress Jennifer Solomon. Schools have to “live within their budgets, just like we have to.” Sure ã if only those whiny kids and their loser parents would follow Solomons example, and go out and inherit their own timber companies!

The truth is that were not “broke” ã neither Oregon nor the country as a whole. Theres plenty of money in the country. The problem is that its being hoarded by the people at the top ã who buy off politicians to make sure that they keep getting richer while the rest of us live in growing fear for ourselves and our kids.

Almost every state is now facing huge budget crises, with devastating cuts being forced on communities around the country. In Arizona, the Governor has proposed cutting off health insurance for nearly 300,000 people ã including some in the middle of chemotherapy or dialysis treatments. The city of Camden, NJ has laid off half its police force, and in Cleveland five firehouses are being shut down. Texas is contemplating closing 850 of the states 1,000 nursing homes, forcing the frail low-income elderly out into the streets. Theres no question that people will die as a result of these cuts.

Here in Oregon, thousands of people who are struggling to make it through the recession are being cut off from healthcare, food stamps and nursery school for their kids. Training and treatment programs for developmentally disabled people will be eliminated. And employees at the UO are being asked to take a 20 percent cut ã a setback that will doubtless force some into bankruptcy and others to lose their homes.

But none of this is necessary.

The entire budget shortfall ã for every state in the country ã could be made up by doing two simple things.

First, end the tax cuts created by President Bush for people who make more than $250,000 a year. Were now giving up $50 billion a year to help these people who need it the least. Second, make the rich play by the same rules as everyone else. Ninety percent of the money earned by buying and selling stocks on Wall Street goes to the richest 10 percent of the country ã most of it to people who make more than a million dollars a year. But incredibly, these people pay a lower income tax rate than do regular working Americans. The price of letting the Wall Streeters off easy is almost $90 billion a year. Those two things together add up to more than the total budget deficit in all the states in the country.

Thats it. The rich pay their fair share and the deficit is gone. Teachers are back in the classroom, the elderly infirm are back in nursing homes, cancer patients are back in chemo, cops and firefighters are back on the street, and hard-working UO employees can continue to earn a modest but decent living.

But the Republicans have pledged their undying opposition to both these proposals ã raising taxes on the rich is “unacceptable,” insists House Speaker John Boehner ã and the Democrats are too spineless to force the issue.

As a political scientist, Im sometimes asked how its possible in a democracy that laws get passed that run against the interests of the majority. But you dont need to be a professor to know the answer: Politicians are in hock to the rich.

If you thought you had a voice in the political process because you gave someone $20 over the internet ã sorry, but youve been played. In last years Congressional elections, more than two-thirds of all campaign contributions came from the top 1 percent of the population. Theres no place for the little people in this process. Even the labor movement ã the only serious voice on behalf of normal working Americans ã was outspent 20-to-1 by corporations.

Its no wonder that a majority of Americans are so disillusioned with both Democrats and Republicans that they believe the country needs a third party. I think that part of what people on both the left and the right long for is a sense of honor in politics, rather the clever manipulations or weasely evasiveness that have become the hallmark of elected officials.

Ive long since accepted that we live in an Orwellian era, where people who want to destroy schools and undercut job standards get to call themselves “Citizens for Jobs and Schools.”

But once in a while I still fantasize about what it would be like if politicians actually told the truth.

If John Boehner had the guts to man up and be honest, heres what hed have to say: “I believe its so important to give more money to the richest people in the country that Im willing to have kids kicked out of daycare, old people made homeless, and cancer patients denied treatment in order to pay for it.” Because thats the truth, and anything else is political spin designed to keep us all clueless sheep. As the old saying goes, dont piss down my back and tell me its raining. The moneys there; the only question is whether we use it on teachers for our kids and nursing homes for our parents, or to help out poor Jennifer Solomon in her moment of need.

In 2009-10, UO professor Gordon Lafer served as a senior policy advisor to the U.S. House of Representatives.