Drowning in the Sequester’s Rising Waters

The sequester’s raging waters are rising.

In the weeks leading up to the sequester deadline, President Obama and others spoke ominously about the tragic effects the sequester – $85 billion worth of automatic cuts in federal government spending – would have. Eventually Obama toned down the rhetoric, realizing that the political gamesmanship was misleading.

No. The sequester hasn’t created instant devastation. It’s much worse than that.

Instead, the sequester has set in motion a cascading death-by-a-thousand-cuts waterfall that will wash through the economy for many years. And more and more Americans are beginning to feel its floodwaters rising around them.

Huffington Post writers were able to compile a list of a hundred painful sequestration stories in a matter of hours. And more stories of individuals and communities feeling the pain of the sequester are coming to light every day. Thousands of chemotherapy patients being turned away, left to die of cancer. Critical research programs being delayed or shelved. Parks and environmental programs being closed or cancelled.

The rising tide starts out slowly but is unforgiving.flood

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The worst part is that the sequester is hitting those most in need the hardest. Despite more than three years of tepid recovery, poverty in the U.S. continues to worsen. Tens of millions of Americans – many of them children – remain in the grips of economic desolation, unable to afford the bare necessities of life. Millions of workers still are unable to find jobs, or are left with no alternative but to work minimal hours at whatever menial jobs are available.

And just when these people most need help, at the very time they have no option but to turn to aid organizations for critical, life-sustaining services, those services are being eliminated.

And it’s not going to end there. Because of the way economies work, cuts in government spending have domino effects.

The wages that Hot Springs National Park employees would have received would have bought groceries at the Food City on Malvern Avenue. The money that would have gone to funding health care in Hampton Roads, Virginia, would have been spent at Jordan Fashions on King Street. The laid-off teachers in Sioux City, Iowa, would have spent most of their paychecks right there in Sioux City, maybe at the Southern Hills Mall.

The sequester washes all of that away. And the owners and employees of those less-frequented stores have less income and spend less. And they spend less. And they spend less. It goes on and on. Multiplied effects, coursing through every community, state, and region of the country. The river gathers force as more streams flow into it.

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More insidious are the long-term impacts of cutting critical programs such as Head Start, health care, and similar services for the neediest among us. The toddler in Cincinnati who would otherwise be in state-funded child care is left home while his multiple-job-working mother struggles to earn enough to feed him. Instead of learning and being cared for by professionals, he’s left without role models, supervision, or attention. Years later he joins a gang and embarks on a life of crime. At-risk babies don’t receive preventative health care when it would do the most good, and grow up to have costly, debilitating health conditions that prevent them from contributing positively to society. Meanwhile, the cost-effective treatment for those heath conditions that would have been developed never is, because funding for those research programs was eliminated.

The long-term water damage is even worse than the short-term.

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What needs to happen?

Extremist Republicans in Congress need to recognize the destructive effects of their absolute unwillingness to compromise. They need to stop catering to the demands of their ideology-obsessed billionaire keepers and compromise for the greater good. Democrats need to stand up for their values. Millions of Americans – the people who are being irreversibly harmed by the sequester – must scream loudly, rising up as a wave to beat against Republican obstructionism.

As the economy struggles to find its footing and produce a sustainable recovery, we can’t afford to yank critical support out from under society’s most vulnerable. The time to address deficits is when an economy is strong, not when it’s most fragile

No, the sequester hasn’t created an instant tsunami of devastation, and it’s not going to. But the longer we allow these cuts to remain in place, the more the rushing waters will eat away at our economy and erode our society.

It’s up to us to roll back the tide.

What the Heck Does “Progressive” Mean, Anyway?

“Progressive” is a problematic word. What does it mean, exactly? Are “progressives” more or less “liberal” than Liberals? Even within this Institute – and “progressive” is our middle name – there’s a broad diversity of political views.

I can only speak for myself. While I view myself as a political centrist, I believe laws should be based on what’s best for our society as a whole, not on any particular religious or moral code. And that political decisions should be guided by the best scientific research and data, taking into account our society’s goals and values. This usually seems to put me left of center on most issues.

I also believe that our society’s main goal should be the greatest good, for the greatest number, for the longest time. Not  “to each according to his needs”. Communistic socialism has shown that it doesn’t provide great good to a great number. Capitalism does a better job, but pure capitalism has proven to be far from ideal as well. The right kind and right amount of government involvement in an economy can and does improve on many market outcomes.

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Beyond that, I like to think about Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy was a Republican when he was President. After leaving office he went on to found the Progressive Party, which made a good showing in the election of 1912. Some of the Progressive Party’s positionsBull Moose Party Charter Member Certificate may not sound revolutionary today, but at the time they were pretty extraordinary:

  • A National Health Service
  • Social insurance for elderly, unemployed, and disabled
  • Minimum wages for women and women’s suffrage
  • An 8-hour workday
  • Farm relief
  • Workers’ compensation for work-related injuries
  • An inheritance tax
  • A Constitutional amendment to allow a Federal income tax
  • Citizens’ referendums (decide on a law by popular vote) and initiatives (petitions)
  • Judicial recall (allowing popular vote override of court unconstitutionality rulings)
  • Strict limits and disclosure requirements on political campaign contributions

While the specifics differ now, most of these positions apply to my vision of “progressive” today. Treating women – and everyone – fairly, both socially and legally, is progressive.

Decreasing the influence of money in our political system is progressive.

Providing financial and healthcare support to those who need it most is progressive.

Requiring the people who can most afford it to pay a larger share of government expenses is progressive.

Hardly an exhaustive list. But you get the idea.

Progressives, quite simply, want real progress. Social, political, and economic progress. Not just for the richest people. For everyone.

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Speaking of progressive, let’s talk taxes. By coincidence, progressives I know advocate a progressive tax system. That means that richer people don’t just pay more taxes, but a larger percentage in taxes. Our federal tax system generally is progressive, but there are many exceptions. And despite this, income inequality in the U.S. has been increasing for decades.

There are good arguments for progressive taxes. The richest can most afford to pay more taxes, and they feel the least pain in paying them. Progressive taxes and redistribution increase fairness. A strong and healthy working class can help the economy. Poverty imposes lots of long-term costs on a society. Redistribution – at least up to a point – can pay off.

There also are arguments against progressive taxes. Conventional economics says they decrease economic growth, though recent research is bringing that idea into question. Some call redistribution “theft” or “social warfare” that punishes the most productive people for being successful.

I might be able to go along with some of that, if higher incomes were 100% due to certain people working harder and being smarter than everyone else. But lots of people are smart and work hard. The fact is, plain dumb luck plays a big role in whether a smart, hard worker becomes a millionaire or becomes homeless. Some of that luck might be in being born to the right parents, or it could be being in the right place at the right time.

Yeah, some differences in income are due to working smarter or harder. But far from all.

So it comes down to balancing rewarding hard work and taking care of the most vulnerable in society. And right now, the U.S. leans far too lightly on the latter.

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At the end of the day, we need more progress and more progressiveness, in our tax system, in our economy, and in our society.

And Evergreen’s here to push for just that.