By Lynn Paris
Whose Budget Will We Get?
I started to get a bit of an adrenaline rush this week in anticipation of writing my column. I was looking forward to “going all political” again; to ranting about the outrageous budget cuts being proposed by the House Republicans --$61 billion for this year to be exact. But it’s not that easy, not when I know how incredibly high our deficit is and the sacrifices that everyone will have to make now and for the foreseeable future if we don’t want to wind up . . . well, I don’t really know . . . bankrupt? . . . a third-world country? . . . creating Armageddon for our grandchildren?
At the very least I know our current spending levels are absurd and unsustainable; even Democrats and Republicans can agree on that. I think that they, along with the American people finally understand that simply cutting waste, fraud and abuse—the time-honored response used by politicians who don’t want to make the tough decisions, won’t solve this problem. What Democrats and Republicans don’t agree on is where to make the cuts and who should make the sacrifices.
And of course, that’s where I take issue with the Republicans, or at least the giant percentage of Republicans who also happen to be either conservative or afraid of the conservatives.
Unfortunately, we have a Republican House of Representatives that is so hell-bent on reducing the size of the federal government and its deficit that they have lost sight of what will create jobs (their rallying cry but a few short months ago) as well as what has always made this country great.
Yes, we HAVE to cut spending, but we can’t do it at the expense of whatever small gains we’ve made in the economy, or on the backs of jobless and low and middle-income Americans. And we can’t strip away our ability to come back from the brink—smarter, better prepared and brimming with creative new solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.
Which is why President Obama, in his state of the union speech, emphasized that this country’s economic woes will only be overcome if we make a commitment to "out-build, out-innovate and out-educate" the rest of the world. And that requires some government spending. Because it’s government that helps pay for research, infrastructure, education and other programs that promote both public- and private-sector jobs. In fact, although Obama’s proposed budget contains cuts in many programs and services he cares deeply about, the President wisely prioritized research.
Prioritizing research, for those who don’t know, means spending more on those government agencies that fund major research projects. I happen to know about this, because I currently work for Texas A&M University, which is among the top 20 public research universities in the country, and third among universities without a medical school, behind only M.I.T. and UC Berkeley. Translated into dollars and cents, we take in more than $630M a year in research funding—biomedical research funding for cancer and other incurable diseases; research into biofuels and other renewable energy; research into advanced wireless communications and computer technology, research into climate change, water resources, anti-terrorism, vaccines, transportation . . . the list of research projects going on in the top universities across the country is staggering, and it is endless . . . because the problems themselves are staggering and endless.
Until I began working for a research university, I never realized that this is where we get our life-saving scientific and medical breakthroughs, our innovative new technologies. They’re funded through grants from, primarily, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Energy. It’s where science happens in this country.
But it’s also where jobs are created. For example, why is Bryan/College Station such a thriving community? It’s because all the cutting-edge research and all the resulting discoveries attract investors, who come to town to commercialize those discoveries. They often put up new buildings, keeping our construction industry busy, and they create jobs for hundreds of workers to continue experimenting and finally to manufacture and/or mass produce. All of that, of course, helps our housing market, our restaurants, our retail stores. They’re all private sector jobs. But it starts with some government funding.
In its proposals for science agencies that support university research, the House Republicans don’t seem to care about current research or the resulting prosperity it brings (to say nothing of the gains in innovation for our country and the world). And I thought they believed in trickle down economics. Instead, the Republicans have called for extremely deep cuts in research funding. In fact, they propose bringing the NIH back to its 2008 level and setting the NSF's budget $150-million below its 2010 level. Eventually, if the Republicans had their way, research would grind to a halt.
But they don’t limit themselves to higher education. The Republicans find ways to hurt working families across the board by proposing that elementary and secondary schools lose a little over $2 billion, costing an estimated 26,000 jobs. About 957,000 students from poor families would see federal support for their schools drop by nearly $700 million, costing about 9,000 jobs, many of them teachers. Special Ed funds would be slashed by nearly $600 million, affecting 324,000 children with special needs. And there’s Head Start, cut by over $1 billion from current levels, eliminating about 128,000 slots for low-income children, and likely leading to 14,000 preschool teaching jobs lost.
Which, if we have to cut everything, might be the only way out. But apparently we didn’t have to do away with tax breaks for the top 2%, costing the government about $40 billion a year. So, everything isn’t on the table.
Of course, what’s really NOT on the table is the remaining 2/3rds of the budget, which goes to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. And now that I’m finally eligible for the first two, I can understand that after putting money in for their entire lives, people get a bit cranky when you threaten their entitlements. More than a bit, in fact. So cranky that no one wants to be the first to bring the subject up . . . not the President and not the Republicans.
So here is where I take issue with Obama. It’s time to bring it up. In fact, it’s time to get ahead of the curve and lead the discussion. Because the only realistic way we’re going to take a significant bite out of the deficit is to tackle entitlements.
Hey . . . I know several wealthy retirees who take their social security payments because it’s owed to them, but who not only don’t need it, but would be just fine with a “means test” that might reduce it a little. I know many others who have no intention of retiring at 65 or 66—which is what social security was first intended for—but they take the payments anyway because why not? Why let the government have it. But if they understood that a very gradual delaying of the retirement age, occuring over many years, might save the country from economic disaster, I think most people would be in favor of it.
That discussion has to begin in earnest and Obama should lead it. Because as I’ve warned several times before in this column, if we wait until the conservatives have total control we will get what we deserve. I, for one, don’t want to wait to see how much worse things will become.