Friday, April 8, 2011

The imminent government shutdown explained in under 500 words

I don't write a whole lot about politics because I prefer to amuse my readers not offend them. But when my almost 13-year-old daughter got upset this morning when she saw a news segment saying the government was about to shut down, and she asked me how the government could let that happen, something inside me snapped. And I let loose.

And now I'm going to share what I told her with all of you. Fortunately for you, you can close this page if you don't want to hear what I had to say. My daughter, on the other hand, had to listen to my diatribe (though she said it helped her understand what was going on -- and she's used to mom ranting and raving about politics).

In a nutshell: I explained to my adolescent daughter that under President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, the government ran a surplus -- that is, it took in more money (mainly in the form of taxes) than it spent. Then under President George W. Bush, a Republican, the government squandered that surplus, in part by launching two unnecessary and costly wars, and wound up with a deficit -- that is spending more money than it took in. And that the deficit has continued to spiral out of control, and that Congress (which has a Republican majority) and the President (Barack Obama, a Democrat) wanted to do something about it, but that they disagreed on how to fix the problem.

I then reminded her that there was a fundamental, philosophical difference between Democrats and Republicans. That Republicans believed in a small Federal government whose primary (and some believe only) job was to protect this country from outside threats -- i.e., tax dollars should be spent on defense. Moreover, Republicans were against raising taxes and taxation in general. (Though really who likes taxes? Some of us are just more realistic about it -- and like the idea of good public schools and clean air and clean water and a social safety net.)

And so if money had to be raised or saved, Republicans believed the solution was to slash spending -- on everything except defense and, OK, entitlements (Social Security and Medicare), which make up the majority of the U.S. Federal budget. Which means that you have to slash spending on things like education, and school lunches, and PBS and NPR (even though the savings for doing so would be a pittance and would solve NOTHING), and other programs that help and benefit the 99% of Americans who are not millionaires and/or in Congress.

Democrats on the other hand, while they are not against cutting spending, don't believe it is a sin or a crime to occasionally raise taxes -- and prefer to cut spending strategically, so as not to inflict unnecessary pain or suffering on Americans.

And so we have an impasse, with Democrats suggesting billions in spending cuts, some of them quite painful, and Republicans continuing to say "fuck you." (Though I didn't use the F word when explaining this to my daughter.)

And if the Republicans in Congress and the President can't reach some sort of agreement today, the Federal government will shut down -- though every member of Congress will still get a big fat paycheck (and spare me the lecture about it's only because the Constitution requires it -- I know), even though the people who actually do the work for them, as well as millions of other Federal employees and soldiers who really need the money, will not.

Does that help explain it, Sweetheart?

UPDATE #1: Many thanks to FOB CRR for sharing this article, titled "It's Not Really About Spending," which clearly puts the blame where it is due.

UPDATE #2: Just received this thoughtful email from my Congressman, which contains information about the government shutdown and which services will be affected -- and which will not.

UPDATE #3: Government shutdown avoided. Nothing to see here. Move along.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Nice post, but I find it too centered on placing labels and indirectly pointing fingers. It is true that Clinton had a budget surplus, that was squandered by Bush. I just don't think it gets us very far to imply that one party is superior to the other. Both have made mistakes and have crooked politicians. The Dems are right this time (imo) but that could change in the next debate. I find the Reps are being unreasonable and I have to ask if some of them want a shutdown to somehow obstruct the recovery. Some may want this, but not all Reps are this vindictive. Who else wants a Constitutional amendment requiring a budget plan for members of Congress to be paid? Likely most Americans are. I'd love to see how the self-acclaimed "party of the people" (Republicans) would react to such a bill.

J. said...

@Anonymous (#2), fair points. Now how about not being Anonymous? :-)

Dave S. said...

Ah yes, the "both sides do it" trope gets to go for a ride. Only this is not the case and has not been the case since 2001. The massive tax cuts, the war in Iraq and Medicare Part D were, among other things, financial disasters of choice. I defy you to find anything coming from the other side of the aisle that comes even close to the scale and destructiveness of those GOP initiatives. In this instance, fingers must be pointed, and directly.

@Anonymous, "not all Reps may be vindictive" but if they continue to vote in lockstep with their vindictive leaders, their personal outlook is irrelevant.

Oh, and Medicare/Medicaid most definitely is in the crosshairs of this aggressively and proudly ignorant bunch.

Ceiling Restorer said...

While not being a very political person in the sense that "I have no clue about politics" I still have to wake up and on my way to my $8.15 an hour job,go fill my tank with the ever rising price of gas,and put in 20 hours to pay for that tank while paying taxes on it and then come home and pay my bills. Someone please fill me in, in plain english, how the government shutting down will stop the above from happening?

Betty Cracker said...

I'm with Dave S in calling BS on the "both sides do it" fallacy. It's entirely possible that our political system contains a bias selection flaw that tends to churn out sociopaths since pols have to sell their souls 10 times before they even make it to the county commission.

Sometimes I think we'd be better off replacing congresscritters with a random selection of citizens pressed into service like jury duty. We surely wouldn't end up with even more thieves, liars and psychos than we already have.

However, we have a two party system. One party is weak, ineffective and has been largely co-opted by multinational corporations. The other party is clinically insane.

To equate the two is like adding the IQ scores of Stephen Hawking and Jersey Shore's Snooki, dividing by two and proclaiming the pair "of average intelligence." It just doesn't work that way.

PS: Righteous rant, J.

Anonymous said...

but didn't keynesian economics help in the 30s!?

JWT said...

I like you, J, but I think you do your daughter a disservice in aligning with one party's rhetoric. The blame casting actually makes a compromise less likely. And as a now unpaid Fed., I'd prefer less self-absorbed rhetoric and more collaboration at this point. As anon. 2 states, there's plenty of blame to go around here. I hope that I can explain to my own kids what's really happened in an impartial way.

J. said...

For those who don't regularly read the NY Times' Op-Ed page, I highly recommend Nicholas Kristof's column "Our Cowardly Congress."