Prioritizing Honesty

Author: Gary Hart

Suppose a family is in debt, as many American families are.  Suppose most of the family’s spending is necessary: mortgage payments, health insurance, gasoline, food, home repairs, and so forth.  Suppose the family sits down with pen and paper and works out that it will still be in debt even if all other spending, call it discretionary (as opposed to necessary), is eliminated.  Either something necessary must be cut or everyone has to get a second (or third) job.  Problem is, jobs are not available.

There is a lack of integrity in the national budgeting process.  Neither party will say specifically what it thinks should be cut to balance the national budget.  Some, particularly Democrats, will argue that public spending is necessary to prime the pump, to employ the unemployed so that they in turn can spend money and stimulate both economic expansion and revenues (taxes).

By and large Republicans like tax cuts for the wealthy, defense spending, international military expeditions, and hiring contractors, and they dislike human assistance, entitlements, and preservation of public resources.  By and large Democrats favor these things and dislike defense spending, tax cuts for those who can pay, and privitization of public responsibilities.  Neither party will be specific as to how the national budget should be balanced.  This is so because listing specific cuts alienates or angers particular constituencies.  Better to be vague.  And too many Americans want spending that benefits us but want cuts in what benefits someone else.

Current deficits are huge and, over time, unsustainable.  The deep recession and two wars account for much of it.  But, like our American family, much of our spending is necessary.  That includes Social Security and Medicare.  Some think Medicaid (health for the poor) should be dropped.  But what about the FBI, interstate highways, remediation of catastrophies (Katrina, Deepwater Horizon, etc.), intelligence collection, homeland security, federal research, veterans benefits, and the list goes on.  The vast majority of Americans say, yes, of course we need those.  Further, the notion of “privatization”, contracting out government responsibilites to private companies, is a smoke-screen.  It is still federal spending, with a profit added on top.

Members of Congress of both parties would be well advised to force their constituents to confront reality.  Bring pie charts and graphs of where the money goes to public meetings.  Force what’s left of the “responsible” media to report and editorialize on where the money goes.  Bring the public into the budget business and require responsible Americans to confront three realities: government spending and the size of government do not shrink with Republican administrations; the vast majority of government spending is required for the nation to function, let alone recapture greatness; and, historically, the great spikes in the national debt have occurred in wartime.

To have faith in this country is to have faith in its people, as Jefferson believed.  Given all the facts, and provided with political leadership in educating us as to the consequences of economic actions, the right decisions will ultimately be made.  But honesty, even brutal honesty, is required by both leaders and citizens.  Pie-in-the-sky schemes, inflated rhetoric, and bizarre economic theories must be rejected.  And we must all recognize that reducing huge deficits is one thing; balancing the budget in times of economic instability is quite another.

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9 Responses to “Prioritizing Honesty”

  1. Brad Blanton Says:

    ***dammit Gary. I wish to hell you had discovered this about 25 years earlier. Brad Blanton

  2. Gary Hart Says:

    A fair reading, Mr. Blanton, of my 12 years on the Senate Budget committee would reveal that the sentiments of this blog fully guided my deliberations during those years. This was an era when “balance the budget” still meant something other than pure political rhetoric and before we wandered off into two very long wars and a severe economic recession. This blog is not a discovery, at least in my case. And even then, I was urging all the ardent budget-balancers to enumerate their cuts.

  3. Christopher Child Says:

    Mr. Hart, I cannot adequately state my admiration for your thoughts in these times. When I was a kid in the 80’s I remember, as young as I was, I thought you were far more wise than the old man in chief Mr. Reagan. As I have matured and grown I’ve maintained my reverence for your brand of thought which so closely mirrors not only my own, but that of my grandparents and parents.
    Thank you for continuing to work for the progression of our country into a better place, and thank you for inspiring ME. I know this may not be completely relevant to the narrative of this particular post, but I felt the need to say “thanks.”

  4. Brian C. McCarthy Says:

    Senator, I agree that the media should play a role in educating Americans about what really is and isn’t in the budget and what expenditures account for the bulk of the spending, but how can they be persuaded to do it? How can public officials force the media to report and editorialize on where the money goes, as you suggest? My impression of the media is that it doesn’t like being forced, or even guided, to do anything that isn’t their own idea. The usual pundits and politicos on MSNBC, CNN, Fox, and other major news outlets tend to report on what suits their own agendas or on what is sensationalistic and puts a$$es in the seats, so to speak. Historically, the leaders of this country who have been most able to guide the media’s reporting have been the deceptive and demagogic types (e.g., Joseph R. McCarthy or Robert Moses). How can honest and responsible leaders convince the media to deliver, or wheedle it into delivering, a message of fiscal reality that is neither ideological nor sensational?

  5. Bob cline Says:

    It’s tough to have faith when misinformation abounds, a large minority of humans are ruled by emotion and not logic, and so many politicians over the last thirty years have publically advocated for the distruction of the federal government FDR built. (You remember the Reagan debt was rationalised as a way to starve the beast, and many people still believe that trickle down works.)

    I like the sentiment your article articulates, and will continue to vote with hope, but faith is failing me. There are so few democrats these days willing to face down the speacial interests of our time.

    I wish you well

  6. Jeff Simpson Says:

    In a society where winning is everything, where majority party chooses the committee chairperson and sets the legislative agenda, truth and honesty are secondary considerations, and perhaps even encumbrances. For-profit entities closely monitor candidate statements and do their best to promote the most ‘business-friendly’ candidate for the near future, resulting in the obvious sacrifice of long-term viability (Wal-Mart, for instance, is destroying its own customer base in the long run). An interesting upshot of political contributions is that corporate support is not especially polarized (i.e., money is allocated to candidates from both major parties), and so even when the less-favored candidate gets elected, there is still the very real threat that this or that PAC will withdraw financial support in the future if the newly elected official is too zealous in carrying out his or her campaign promises. Removal of the money from politics would be a huge step in the right direction, as this is tantamount to democracy for sale, which is about as oxymoronic as it can get.

    Specificity is the key to combating those that would cut the federal programs that keep the fabric of our society intact. But when the journalists doing the questioning are held to account for the nature of their line of questioning by the same for-profit entities, we have complete media and political capture. It used to be that good editors would weather the storm that would follow from the loss of a few advertisers in exchange for the ability to maintain journalistic autonomy, independence, and integrity. Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News organization seems to be the antithesis to the notion of what constitutes good journalistic practice.

    All that we are missing to complete the nightmare is the suppression of independent, unsponsored discourse — i.e., a valuable service currently provided by the internet, along with movie times.

  7. Tomas Agee Says:

    Here’s a local example of the larger national problem: I live in a small town in Massachusetts, where budget increases of 2.5% or more must be approved by a vote of the citizens to override State law. Recently, the school department in our town proposed a substantially larger increase, so the debate began. Nowhere among the arguments against were there any ideas of what should be cut: sports, the arts, science, etc. (oh yes, someone did suggest that the superintendent’s salary was too high). Fortunately, the absence of specificity on the “no” side seemed to nudge the budget toward eventual passage.

    What is needed on the national level is someone (a job for the media if the legislators won’t?) who will hold the againers’ feet to the fire and make them declare what they will cut or face tax increases. I do remember well when Senator Hart and a few others routinely did this for us, and I miss their service.

  8. Gary Hart Says:

    Several responses are right to chide me for using “force” with regard to the media coverage of complex budget issues. Softer words might have been “encourage” or even something stronger such as “insist.” But, as we all know, the media do what they decide and what they will.

  9. Ann Dietrich Says:

    Mr. Hart, you make important points. While this generation figures it out, I hope that your public policy students will think about how to educate children, starting at a very young age, as to what it is like to tax and spend, and to have priorities for a group of people. They will grow to understand that difficult decisions must be made. As they advance through school, a curriculum that shows them how we Americans are a part of a larger, world economy, is important. This type of understanding need not, in fact, should not, be reserved for those whom we elect as leaders and the well-educated.

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