One of the nice things about Republicans when they get into positions of power is that they do our side favors by clarifying very quickly how extreme their ideas are. Newt Gingrich did it in 1995 with talk of sending kids to orphanages and cutting school lunch programs, along with his whining about having to sit in the back of Air Force One and that little shutdown-of-all-government thing. Now Paul Ryan, on behalf of the entire Republican Caucus in the House, is joining Scott Walker and other GOP Governors in doing the same.
With his proposal, Ryan will radically cut and privatize Medicare, ending the guarantee of health care to our senior citizens; radically cut Medicaid and throw it into a block-grant program that will end any guarantee of coverage for the poor, people with disabilities, and many, many children; deliver breathtakingly large tax cuts to the wealthy while raising taxes for the middle class. As far as I can tell, more than 90 percent of his cuts impact either low-income people or senior citizens who are currently middle class but might no longer be if these Social Security and Medicare cuts go through. As to who benefits, while some things remain vague (like which middle-class taxes will have to go up to cut down the revenue losses because of lower taxes in the high-end brackets), it is likely that more than 90 percent of the benefits go to the very wealthy, who not only get to keep their Bush tax cuts but get some big and lucrative new tax cuts besides. As Citizens for Tax Justice notes, under Ryan’s proposal, the federal government would collect $2 trillion less over the next decade, yet require the bottom 90 percent to actually pay higher taxes. Ryan leaves a lot details out, but if you read in between the lines, it is clear that the reason certain details are missing is because of how awful they are.
All the hue and cry about this year’s budget fight — whether or not we’ll have a government shutdown; whether we’ll cut $33 billion or $40 billion out of the remainder of this year’s budget — is a minor sideshow compared to the implications of the Ryan budget. Cuts to vital programs helping low and middle income Americans are morally wrong and bad public policy, but they only impact the next several months, and future Congresses can always (and relatively easily) boost spending numbers in important programs. But fundamentally restructuring programs- or more to the point, destroying them- is a lot harder to for future Congresses to change. Can you imagine any Congress in this dysfunctional era ever passing programs as strong and reliable as Medicare and Medicaid again?
Paul Ryan, Scott Walker, Eric Cantor, and the Tea Party Republicans are, to their credit, being crystal clear about their philosophy and goals for the future: they hope to dismantle the last vestiges of the New Deal and Great Society programs which have benefitted the middle class and low-income Americans, and fund the parts of government they like — military spending and national security, subsidies to Big Oil, coal, and agribusiness companies, trade missions abroad, etc. — with taxes on the poor and middle class. With Ryan’s budget and Cantor’s classic quote the other day (“So 50 percent of beneficiaries under the Social Security program use those moneys as their sole source of income. So we’ve got to protect today’s seniors. But for the rest of us? Listen, we’re going to grips with the fact that these programs cannot exist if we want America to be what we want America to be.”) Republicans want to privatize or completely dismantle Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid; they want to wipe out the labor movement; they want to wipe out even minimal oversight of the financial system, worker safety, and the environment. They want to take us back to the era of Calvin Coolidge, when the advances of the last 80 years simply didn’t exist. Everything the last several generations of Americans have fought for and depended on would be gone. And so would the majority of the American middle class.
Without Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, retirees would live in poverty, and family incomes would be wiped out trying to take care of parents, grandparents, and disabled family members. Without unions, wages and benefits would be ever more stagnant, or would decline in many sectors. Without student loans, fewer young and poor people would make it onto the first rungs of the ladder into the middle class. Without rebuilding our infrastructure and investing in our schools, fewer American businesses would be able to compete in the world economy. Without research and other government investments, the technological breakthroughs that have helped fuel our economic growth over the last 70 years would stop happening. And without some restraint on the power of multinational companies, our economy would be rocked by more financial collapses, and our pluralistic democracy will get more and more dysfunctional.
The Ryan budget, Cantor’s quote, and Scott Walker’s war on unions are just the latest examples of radical conservatism’s war on the American middle class. Conservatives want a country where the wealthy and powerful are free to do what they want when they want. They want unbridled capitalism with all restraints taken off, the way America was in the 1920s — no, better make it the Social Darwinist 1880s, before Teddy Roosevelt came along and did too much trust-busting, food safety legislation, and national park creation. Conservatives want an America where there is complete “freedom” for the rich and powerful, but if you aren’t in that category you are on your own. This is what they “want America to be,” in Cantor’s words. This federal budget fight is part of the same battle with Republicans trying to destroy unions in the states, and part of the same battle homeowners across America are facing with reckless, power-hungry Wall Street banks. This battle is for the future of the American middle class, and we’d better win it.