The Terror Of Food Stamps And Big Bird

My wife and I are preparing to celebrate our eleventh anniversary, and I am racing about trying to finish preparations for a local youth sports event. Others in our democracy have a very different agenda this week. Some are waiting for the end of the world (this time, it is guaranteed to be May 21), others are doing their best version of Chicken Little…the budget sky is falling!

We do have a very large current deficit fueling an ever-growing national debt. Left unchecked, this fiscal situation could cripple our economy at least as effectively as the geniuses on Wall Street were able to accomplish during the first decade of this century. So, being the fiscally responsible, business-minded people that we are, we seek to control those aspects of our budget driving the deficits. Are the budget issues related to the diminished tax revenues that are characteristic of a recession? Are they by-products of the calamitous inflation in health care expenses? Could they be linked with the Bush tax cuts which, by definition, slashed tax revenues? Is there a connection with the ongoing wars in the Middle East?

If we are to believe the diagnosis of congressional Republicans and the so-called liberal mainstream media, the answer is none of the above. If we are to believe those beacons of fiscal responsibility and budget integrity, the real culprits are poor people, PBS, public school teachers, and food stamps.

This column is not about the relative merits of liberal programs, or the sins of conservative motivations (real or imagined). This is an exercise in perspective; United States budget-style. For fiscal 2010 (President Obama’s first budget), revenues were expected to be $2.381 trillion and expenditures were to be $3.552 trillion. These are eye-popping numbers to be sure, but not out of scale for the wealthiest 320 million people in the world (give or take).

Let’s address this head-on: since 2003, we the people have spent almost $791 billion on the War in Iraq. Since 1970, we the people have spent far less than that amount on the food stamp/SNAP program…total. That is one war of suspicious origin, questionable motivation, and selective ethical foundation, versus the program whose costs rise and fall with the changing need of America’s poor and/or jobless. During times of recession, when our nation’s corporations are safeguarding their profits by laying off the working class, those numbers go up.

During this last year, we the people might very well have spent as much on the artist formally known as food stamps as we did in any 6 month period of the Iraq War. For this reason, pundits and bloggers of questionable humor have labeled President Obama the “food stamp president”, although that moniker might be more fairly leveled at President Cheney and his copilot George Bush. The recession did have its origins in, begin during, and hit its peak within the scope of George W. Bush’s budget years.

So much for food stamps, but the other programs are similarly scaled. Seasame Street, Nova, Frontline, Wall Street Week, The Lawrence Welk Show, and the other elements of PBS were to cost taxpayers $604 million in 2011. The total amount of PBS funding over the decades amounts to little more than an expensive month during the war (and I am not including Afghanistan in this comparison). Republicans who recently voted against killing the $4 billion or so in manufacturing subsidies that largely go to oil companies and other large multi-nationals, tried to kill funding for PBS this year. A $4 billion giveaway to firms with record market capitalizations and record profits, or $604 million to fund Big Bird’s home…you the voter must make the call.

For those of you who aspire to be “pro-business”, an exercise in corporate financial management might be beneficial. The most productive elements of your business always fund ongoing capitol improvements, which is why no less a pair of authorities than Thomas Paine and Adam Smith (the father of capitalism) supported the notion of progressive taxation. Investments should always be made in the areas of the greatest return, and federal spending on people always returns more than tax cuts or federal spending on war. It isn’t ideology, it is an accounting identity. Finally, when a business is confronted with major shortfalls in revenue or accelerations in cost, it attacks precisely those elements fueling the obstacles.

Accelerating health care costs (and by that I mean industry-specific inflation exceeding CPI by more than 4 times per annum),  a massive trade deficit driven by the artificially high U.S. dollar, the deregulation-fueled commodity speculation that drives massive oil price inflation, and massive tax cuts targeted at earners who will never spend the difference in economically-productive activities are the root causes of deficit. The question the members of The Rational Middle must therefore ask is; why has there been no legislation proposed by a Republican that addresses any of these root causes?

Your guess is as good as mine, but the price of blindly believing journalists who get their economics lessons from David Brooks and the Wall Street Journal is more than any of you want to bear.

The Rational Middle is listening…

14 thoughts on “The Terror Of Food Stamps And Big Bird

  1. Pingback: On Profits, Oil, And Taxes « The Rational Middle

  2. Hi Michael,
    I guess I did not do a very good job of boiling down probably 5 books into a few paragraphs. For the full explanation of some of the concepts please start with either of these two books:
    Again, I think you need to step back from examining all these trees and consider the bigger picture. Like I mentioned, I think the strategy worked fine. Your response is regarding the details of how the military component was executed. I agree with you, the planners should have believed the generals and sent sufficient troops in (the Powell Doctrine).
    If you want to focus on the talking-points pretexts, I think you miss that big picture. It would be just as easy for me to argue that no pretext is necessary given 1) the UN authorized military action against Iraq in 1991, 2) the 1991 Gulf War ended with a cease-fire, not a peace treaty, contingent on Iraq submitting to weapons inspections, and 3) in 2003, Iraq was in violation of the conditions of both the cease-fire and UN mandates. There was no need to get further authorization from the Congress or UN as Iraq effectively nullified the cease-fire and re-started hostilities. They had actually been doing this for over 10 years, routinely firing anti-air missiles at US fighters patrolling the no-fly zones. Instead of looking for pretexts, you should be asking why the heck didn’t Clinton recognize this violation and defacto state of war and do something about it?
    Also, it always makes me laugh when I heard “neo-cons” too. You know of course that “neo” mean “new”. Guess what they were before? I can’t remember the book, but there are some good histories of where this group came from, largely pro-Israeli, liberal hawks. They were largely run out of Democratic party as it became more dovish in the Vietnam era. I see failed plans like Bush’s drug program for seniors as nothing more than another liberal give-away. There’s not much conservative about it, so referencing them as such is just a false term. I think they’re just still as liberal and hawkish as they were 40 years ago, but to really identify them as Republicans and conservative is inaccurate. Again, this using the standards I applied when evaluating the pretexts, it’s more important to analyse the actions and consequences than worrying about the words they’re using.
    As for the financial aspects, I think we’re essentially agreeing. You just originally misunderstood my comment on what I see as likely. I did not have any nits to pick with the rest of your post or response. As an illustrative tool in scale analysis though, I obviously took exception to your characterization of the Iraq war. Without the snarky comments about justification or pretexts or whatever, I think the scale analysis is useful. But it’s not necessary to pit good versus evil to understand the scope/scale. From my point of view, it weakens your position (which I think is right) by perpetuating a falsehood or lack of big picture understanding and casting part of your scale in an incorrect light.

  3. Scott…I am glad you responded, and I will try to address your thoughts one at a time.

    First, I used the Iraq War as a tool for expressing the scale of budget items to normal folks (i.e. those with jobs and families who don’t have the time to go line item by line item through the budget) versus a fairly typical and highly criticized social program. My criticism of that war was framed thus: “one war of suspicious origin, questionable motivation, and selective ethical foundation”. You disagreed with my assessment of that war with a stirring and utterly insulting analogy of my foreign policy knowledge to board games.

    There were three pretexts for the war used to convince Congress to authorize the action; there were three, because the first two were quickly debunked. Ten years later, there has never been evidence linking Saddam with al-Qaeda (beyond one meeting between a junior member of the Baath Party and al-Qaeda functionaries), let alone anything linking him with 9/11; that is pretext number one. WMD’s were the second reason given to assault Iraq, despite our intelligence service’s declarations (as late as the summer of 2002) that Iraq had neither the weapons nor the capacity to produce them. The U.N. team on the ground concurred right up until the last minute, and were emphatically proven correct. So much for pretext number two. The third given reason for the invasion was regime change; that glorious source of operation code names that are packaged for general consumption. Operation Iraqi Freedom.

    Those are the pretexts for invasion, and you don’t claim points Scott for your argument, regardless of how intriguing it is. You don’t because if, as you claim, the Iraq War was a gigantic misdirection play, then it certainly meets the standards of ethically questionable and suspicious.

    But I am interested by your “foreign policy knowledge”. You make the almost unbelievable claim that the war was fought to put pressure on the Saudis and Iranians. Simply breathtaking; you should write a book (seriously). 5,000 lives lost (American, with many times that number of Iraqis killed) and $800 billion spent. You then claim that the ploy worked! Wow! The Saudis, first of all, have spent the last ten years aggressively funding the Wahabbism and the madrasas it is taught in (within Pakistan) that are the source of (most) radical jihadists. They also refused to allow U.S. investigators to trace terrorists cells through their financial transactions. They cracked down on factions within their kingdom that were threats to the royal family, not Americans. Resting your case on the actions of Saudi Arabia sir, is tantamount to admitting your case is without merit.

    You are nearer the mark on the real reason for invading Iraq when you mention Iran; but it isn’t immediately obvious how that supports your initial criticism of my piece, or undermines my subsequent defense. The neo-conservatives behind the invasion of Iraq believed (and believe) that the power of the United States is best demonstrated via the military, and that that power should be used to uproot governments we see as a threat. Syria and Iran were logical next steps were the invasion of Iraq to go according to the plans that Rumsfeld and Cheney laid down. But the American people would never have supported them, so they lied. And so my point on the suspicious and unethical nature of Iraq is made.

    Part of your argument Scott was an analogy you made (I am playing checkers and so can’t understand the chess Bush et. al. were playing, whilst you can).

    If chess it be Scott, then were was the end-game? The neo-conservatives have never been capable of seeing more than a few moves into their future, which is why they contradict themselves so very often. They disregarded the real chess players in the Pentagon who told them they needed 250,000 troops, and they invaded a country without any notion of what to do if the people of that country turned against them (as people do when they are attacked.) They should go back to Chutes and Ladders.

    As to finances Scott, this article was an exercise in scale analysis. I don’t like the media and conservative version of “economic reality”, because it doesn’t stand up to critical muster. All of their arguments inevitability rely on an economy constructed in a way that stands in absolute contradiction to the economy that led the 20th Century to be America’s Century. Most rank and file Americans miss the finer points of the argument because they don’t truly understand the scale of the budget; $600 million for Big Bird sounds like a lot, until you compare it to something that costs more by several orders of magnitude, and leaves a much more bitter taste in their mouthes.

    Thanks again for the comments and have a great weekend!

  4. Hey Michael, I’m not sure which pretexts you’re referencing. Again, there are moves you telegraph to your opponent and there are others which you do not. If you mean only the public rational presented, then yes, you’re correct. If you’re thinking more strategically and several moves ahead, then you are not. Let me try to simplify it for you:
    Given the context of the 9/11 attacks, going into Afghanistan was required to disrupt the ability of our enemies which had just attacked us. Next, evaluating the situation and past, what were we faced with? A Saudi terrorist leader who sent 18 of 19 terrorists to attack the US who were also Saudi. What is the obvious next target for the US? What country was saying they were outraged while they still funded fundamentalist organizations like the one that attacked us? The problem was two-fold, they were theoretically our ally (like Pysch mentioned about Pakistan today) and of course the flow of oil. So, the President puts on an act. The whole administration does actually. They want to sound scared, unpredictable, like there are boogeymen behind every door. Who knows what they’ll do next. Now, we’ve got enemies in Iran and Iraq, but troops next door in Afghanistan. How do we 1) take out one of our enemies, 2) maintain our alliance and flow of oil, 3) place pressure on our ally with a large military force nearby while we’re acting unpredictably, 4) sandwich another enemy between our two deployed forces, 5) several smaller goals? Don’t forget that Saddam was already violating UN resolutions over weapons inspections or he was funding terrorists in the Israeli occuppied territories. In sense, we went in for oil, but not Iraq’s oil, but Saudi Arabia’s. Did you notice how shortly afterward they started cracking down within the kingdom? The geopolitical strategy was correct and executed properly. The actual running of the war was completely wrong. They should have kept the republican guard and Iraq’s military in place instead of trying to rebuild them. A lot of things should have been done differently. That doesn’t detract from the real goals and the real reasons for doing it.
    So, if the pretexts you’re referring to are the public discussion talking points, you actually have missed the point. So, to your challenge to balance the blood, treasure, & propoganda.. yes, it worked, we disrupted the ability of our enemies to carry out large attacks on US soil. We did it first in Afghanistan and later in Saudi Arabia. I think the treasure was wasted to a degree, but inefficiencies are not a reason to throw out the whole strategy. As for blood, yes, again, no additional attacks took place here at home. I think it’s completely worth the loss overseas to keep those at home safe. Even taking into account the number of wounded over 7 years or so, it’s not too much above the number killed outright on our nations highways. How can 35k people die year after year, but a much smaller group actually protecting us by getting injured in a far off land is so much worse? What higher purpose does the deaths of infants and children on our highways serve? I remember the nightly news covering when the death toll in Iraq hit 1000 after like 18 months. Look up the stats on the CDC, nearly that many (800) die falling off ladders in 12 months in the annual reports. I don’t even know how to address propaganda. It’s clear the people who are our enemies don’t need our help creating reasons for them to hate us, but again, we can’t always telegraph our real strategy or spell it out so every 2nd grader can understand it.
    Also, you’ve completely missed my point on financial things. I did not say or imply that Americans should be happy with it. Personally I’m worried a lot about it. My wife doesn’t currently have a job and mine could go to India at any point. What I asked was, what do you really expect to happen? Just because I understand the situation and have figured out what is likely doesn’t mean I’m endorsing it or happy or think others should be happy.

  5. Tax receipts, Len (in both adjusted dollars and as a percentage of GDP):

    PBS’ financial statements for your review Len:

    Government spending (excepting that spent on wars or foreign aid) goes to domestic businesses for items that build the commercial infrastructure of the nation; infrastructure without which the business community would be lost.

  6. Thank you Len…Bush cut taxes…revenues fell…jobs left at a rate unprecedented in American history. Perhaps you would care to explain your arguent in a different way.

  7. The Bush tax cuts increased revenue. When money stay with the people who earned it it creates jobs. When the government gets a tax dollar they will spend 2 or more.
    As far as PBS goes, doesn’t Sesame Street bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in toy sales from it commercials ( I mean TV shows). If people and businesses were forced to be self reliant we would all be better off. Instead we create a culture of helplessness which in the end will ruin all of us.

  8. Well stated carver, and thanks for visiting. The American awakening happens, thankfully, every two years. Far from marching in the streets for a change in the government, we simply need to show up at the polls with a clear understanding of what policies and actions have brought us to this point.

  9. Those who are taking the hits in this diseased economy are those furthest from from the problem and those least able to afford it. The culprits, OTOH, are still getting their million $$ bonuses. The trillions of dollars of Wall Street scams, vapor asset shuffling and naked short selling combined with two unnecessary wars and generous tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans have left the economy in the toilet. However, as any good conservative ideologue or corporate puppet knows it’s the unions and public employees, Social Security, Medicare, PBS, food stamps and Planned Parenthood that are destroying America’s economy.
    “The Arab Awakening” is a dramatic event on the world stage – I patiently await, with a shred of hope, The American Awakening.

  10. Thanks for your comments Scott, and I really enjoyed the somewhat less than subtle digs at my foreign policy interests. The overwhelming bulk of foreign policy experts, as well as much of our professional military leadership believe that the pretex for invading Iraq was false. That the conflict was questionable isn’t open any longer for debate is certain; also, President Obama did not continue Bush’s policy in regards to Iraq. But you could perhaps give us a more detailed look at what you feel were/are the geopolitical benefits of that war; of course we would expect you to balance those benefits against the costs of the war in propaganda, blood, and treasure.

    And just to be certain, your point fiscally is that Americans should be happy lowering their standards to that of the rest of the world so that we can afford geopolitical chess of the form that Messers Cheney and Bush undertook.

  11. It is sad how much the government is giving away to fund projects in every other country but ours. We pay $3 billion dollars a year to Pakistan, who’s really not our ally, meanwhile Americans are losing their homes and government benefits.

  12. Simply because you do not understand the origin, motivation, and foundation for going into Iraq does not mean you should cast it as suspicious or questionable. Geopolitics is like chess and your characterization wouldn’t even pass in basic checkers. You seem to see a wide breadth of possible moves, but for a master player there are actually few surprises and unknown openings/responses. This is why Obama’s policies have largely followed what Bush did, because there are actual limits, standard opening moves, etc. The realities of the choices is not as wide open in the chess game as it appears to someone just moving up from tic-tac-toe. On a financial scale, given the globalization and how technology has produced a “flat” world, is it really more surprising that the 5% of the total population which happens to reside in the USA is being brought down to the level of the other 95% of the world? Given the task of raising wages for 95% of the planet or dropping it for 5%, which did you really expect to occur?

  13. Could you provide figures for the amounts needed for food stamp/SNAP program? I think it’ll leave you less open to those who will disagree.

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