Saturday, January 29, 2011

Cut Unneeded Spending - Yours!

The political mantra of 2011 thus far is that it is all about “cutting spending.” This is supposedly the people’s message coming out of the 2010 election. But I suspect that some among us are listening to the people’s message with a tin ear. In fact, 43% in a recent CBS/New York Times poll listed Job Creation as the most important government priority, far outstripping the 18% wanting to revisit Health Care, and only 14% who prioritized Budgeting Cutting.

So let’s talk about this #3 priority – budget cutting – which has nevertheless become the #1 priority of the Washington folks. Is our national debt too high? Yes. Is our annual budget deficit too high? Yes. Is that budget deficit increasingly limiting our ability to be flexible in our national spending decisions, to be able to move spending where it needs to go? Yes. And is our national debt lurking as a behind-the-scenes national security issue, minimizing our response to international issues based upon our debt to other countries? Yes.

We hear of a target by some Tea Party conservatives of cutting $100B from the federal budget this year. President Obama, in his State of the Union speech, proposed a spending freeze for 5 years at 2008 levels, but only on non-security spending. This after he had already proposed a 2-year salary freeze on some – but not all – government employees. He endorsed the Republican proposal to end budget earmarks, to which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told him to “back off.” House Republicans voted to reduce their own operating budget; Obama endorsed spending cuts but is opting to reinvest in education, infrastructure and energy. Representative Paul Ryan, House Budget Committee Chairman and once a firebrand of targeted, radical spending cuts, came on TV and gave a very good Republican response to Obama’s speech. He reinforced the goal of spending cuts, but said such very gently, in a non-threatening manner, with no specifics stated.

The fact is, everyone is now on board the same “USS Spending Cuts” ship, but no one has yet plotted a sailing course. The nautical maps remain in the drawers. It is like my junior high school prom where all the boys and girls are standing against opposite walls, no one willing to be the ones to break the ice and actually go out on the dance floor. Everyone talks about cutting spending, but no one wants to be the first to say “where.” Why? Because talking about cutting spending at the gross level is easy – “Let’s cut $100B.” (Everyone applauds.) But a cut in spending is actually a cut in some favored program, a cut in services, a cut in someone’s grant award, a loss of someone’s tax benefit. The cut ultimately becomes personal and shows up in someone’s bank account, pay stub, or loss of expected services.

Parks close or stop being maintained. Teachers and police get laid off. Medical assistance gets eliminated. New buildings or municipal projects don’t get built. Agricultural subsidies get cut for food corporations. Purchases from businesses are reduced. “Cutting spending” ultimately translates into “you don’t get anymore what you used to get.” And we have gotten very used to getting what we have gotten. Vague, generic headlines become personal. And when it gets personal, people get angry.

So no politician wants to move yet past the headlines and tell people what really has to happen. The President’s special debt commission delivered their true and sobering report in December – and politicians both left and right said “no” and scurried for cover. But that commission jump-started the real conversation and thankfully gave us a good yardstick we can use to measure all the empty rhetoric we will hear through this year.

Everyone is for cutting government spending – as long as it is money being spent on YOU. If we all can agree on the need to cut, we do not agree at all on where to cut. Your “savings” are my “loss.” Almost all states are facing significant budget deficits this year, having been artificially kept afloat the past two years by the federal stimulus program. Reality beckons. When schools start closing and teachers are let go and class sizes swell, 50% of a police force are let go, libraries are shuttered, students can’t get into college, and municipal services are cut back, then spending cuts will hit home. Eliminating cell phones for many state employees is nice symbolism, but will not make much of a dent in California’s $20B+ deficit.

When we finally really talk about cutting significant spending, it will be ugly. Doomsday scenarios will abound; finger-pointing will be plentiful. Conservatives will rush to protect military spending and the corporate welfare (versus military needs) that drive that budget; liberals will decry cuts to social programs and human welfare that drive discretionary spending. Cutters will nevertheless seek to insulate; insulators will seek to cut. We will go around in circles over what are really questions of 1) national priority; 2) the role of government; and 3) impacts on the American people. Is protecting a national park more or less important than protecting a job than protecting me from a robber than keeping citizens healthy?

The discussion will start with trying to identify the losers, who will get cut, how to maneuver to save my needs from the budget ax. It is only when we accept that all of us have to take this hit in some form that true progress will begin to happen. When nothing is sacrosanct then we have a chance to equitably move forward. We have to look at all things without prejudice.

When Republicans are willing to stop spending dollars on military hardware we don’t need because it pays corporations and employees back home in their districts; when liberals are willing to hold up on educational investments that support shoddy schools, incompetent teachers and self-promoting universities; when WE the citizens stop judging our elected officials by how much grant money they bring home to us for projects we often don’t really need nor are a national priority – when we begin to see politicians on the left and right move away from their traditional stump speeches, sound-bites and stated priorities, only then will I begin to believe that we are truly serious about cutting government ending. And when I see We, the People, supporting those political changes, and giving up our personal benefits and sharing the pain together, then I will believe that we are serious. Until then, it is all talk, all show, all going nowhere. It will just be another angry, divisive moment that we are becoming numb to.

It is time for all my junior high classmates to move away from the wall, talk to each other, and begin to dance together before our dreaded curfew arrives.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Words Matter

Words Matter.

Last week, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona was wounded while conducting a street-side open house with her constituents. Six people in attendance were killed, including a senior federal judge and one of Gifford’s aides, and 13 were wounded. Another angry, loony shooter – whose name I intentionally refuse to state here –has once again captured headlines and left us shaking our collective heads.

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, who spent most of the last year being a most hateful person in word, demeanor and action, offered (empty) condolences to Giffords and the many families. In contrast, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik (of Giffords’ home county) spoke truth to power and called out what we truly know. He observed that, “When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government: the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous.” Arizona, embroiled over the last year by bitter divisions over illegal immigration and health care reform, has become “the mecca for prejudice and bigotry.”

Meanwhile, Sarah Palin, never able to let respectful silence go by unfilled, said that, “we all pray for the victims and their families, and for peace and justice.” But in her statement, Mrs. Palin took no responsibility for helping to create the environment of violence in which politics now operates. However, the image on her website of Congresswoman Giffords’ house district which showed an “X” target in the crosshairs of a gun sight was quickly deleted. Just a coincidence of timing, I am sure. Palin subsequently posted a video defending herself against accusations that her words had contributed to this situation, but then went on to use inflammatory words against those she felt used inflammatory words. There are times when plain silence is the best response.

Words Matter.

I have decried before the cavalier manner in which too many people will say anything, and often do so in violent imagery, for personal fame and gain. Black congressmen walking into the Capitol building to vote for health care reform were subjected to a gauntlet of racial slurs; gun-toting protestors showed up at political rallies; screamers dominated political meetings; public officials have been threatened or their offices broken into; a congressman was treated as a hero for yelling “you lie” at the President in an official State of the Union address. This last year in politics has been tortuous to observe, and an embarrassment to our supposed moral and political leadership role in the world. There have been times when it has felt like we are living in some 3rd- or 4th- world backward country in which violence, lies and revolution are the norm.

As with so many things these days, when is enough yet enough? When does political life stop being a game and become something far more important? How and when does the great American Middle – the Middle that still knows what respect and thoughtful discussion entails – stand up and say STOP. Whether the 20120 election sends a corrective message or aggravates an already intolerable situation remains to be seen. Likely, “the message” will be in the ear of the congressional listener, interpreted not as a “voice of the people” but a “voice of the people I choose to hear that already agree with me.”

The inflammatory rhetoric will likely continue. The talk of “doing the people’s business” will likely dissolve into “doing our political business as usual.” Disrespectful, non-compromising non-relationships will likely continue as people seek their own agenda over any legitimate goals and needs of others. The art of reaching out, finding common ground, and making progress within a greater good rather than a selfish good, will struggle to not become a disappearing art. Fox News chief Roger Ailes told his broadcasters to “Shut up, tone it down, make your arguments intellectually. You don’t have to do it with bombast.” But will this edict last after all the memorial services are over? Only 24-hours later it was questionable. Ailes also said that “Both sides (the right and left) are wrong, but they both do it.” He is right about that: proper conduct is a personal thing, and no one political group owns it. Congress observed a moment of silence in respect for the shooting victims; perhaps an hour of silent reflection would be more meaningful and effective?

It may never be able to be proved that this latest shooter actually saw Sarah Palin’s website, and so saw his congresswoman in a rifle’s crosshair sight. He may never have specifically heard Michelle Bachman talk about “Obama Nazi youth camps” or Palin’s “death panels.” He may not have heard the numerous other voices using the branded code words like “Obama-care” (Republicans) or “Socialist agenda” (Gingrich); he may not have read the many websites claiming that our freedoms are endangered and must be defended – implicitly or explicitly by violent resistance. But he clearly lives, as do we, in a place where fear and anger increasingly surround us every day in our news and in our “entertainment,” and in a Facebook world built upon a need for individual attention if not notoriety. Regardless of where the shooter’s obsession with Giffords came from, we have taught our crazies all too well and frequently that the release of their angers and achievement of their need for attention is in mass shootings – from whence the cameras and news media will come; anonymity will give way to infamy.

Gabrielle Giffords’ shooting will soon move to a distant memory, like all the other shooting victims before her. Her shooter will have his 15 minutes of non-stop attention that he could not get otherwise. An unfortunate number of people offering prayers today will shortly go back to their lies and hateful words. Business as usual will return all too soon. Will any lasting lessons have been learned?

Words Matter.

The reality is that our current environment of fear and anger is ugly. Too many blatantly contribute to this directly through their media role, or in a political role that gives them access to that media. Supposedly “responsible mainstream media” who allow this environment to continue without complaint nor exposing it to truth share responsibility for this environment.

But we are equally responsible when we buy into this misinformation, and make these “fakers of fear” into perverted celebrities of would-be truth. It is our job to speak out against this dangerous climate, and the dangerous people who hide behind soft words, nice appearances, cutesy smiles and simpleton statements. In each of our own little corners of the universe, we are obligated to model right speech in right relationships with our neighbor – and chastise those who do not. If our leaders cannot lead us to where we need to go, then we need to lead ourselves in right directions through right conduct. Then, hopefully, our leaders will find us and follow.

Words Matter. We always have the power to choose the words that we speak, and the speakers that we listen to. Finding the right words begins, as it always does, at home, with ourselves.