*Editor’s Note: Climbers tend to stay out of politics. We rely on the Access Fund to do our dirty work to keep the areas we love open and climbing permitted. Yet right now all the national parks and the climbing and adventures they offer are off limits; the impasse representing one of the largest access denials in memory. Park closures are just one consequence of the government shutdown. As climbers we pride ourselves on being involved and informed. We look out for safety, teach Leave No Trace ethics and value our natural resources. So when something like the shutdown rolls around, how should we think about it? What should we do or say? The answers aren’t necessarily straightforward, but having the facts and understanding history are a good place to start. Here is my take on the politics of the current shutdown and how we got here. If you agree, disagree or just think I’m ugly, feel free to treat this as an open forum and leave a comment.
Politics has always been messy. But only rarely has the threat of a government shutdown been used as leverage and only during the last few years has the debt limit been considered a bargaining tool.
Because until recently virtually everyone has agreed that shutting down the government and defaulting on our debts is bad for the country. More importantly, it hurts individuals in little and big ways.
Right now my brother is in California and we had planned a trip to Yosemite. Because the national parks are casualties of the government shutdown we can forget about it. Last week, I talked to a close friend who is a postdoctoral researcher working for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. He’s been furloughed since Tuesday. Many others are now, suddenly, out of work. These are real people with families who live paycheck to paycheck. There isn’t a single politician in the country who would tell you these are good things.
And yet here we are with both sides refusing to budge and negotiations on hold indefinitely. But these aren’t ordinary negotiations.
Normally both sides genuinely believe their proposed actions will benefit the greater good. Usually a negotiation involves compromise and winning consolations based on the merits of a position and a reasonable give and take. In contrast, agreements achieved under treat of shutdown or default is hostage taking so a small faction can get its way.
Right now that minority is House Tea Party Republicans for whom it is a mission to cripple ObamaCare at any cost, including the risk of economic collapse and putting nearly a million people on open-ended furlough. These are the very people and things they should be fighting to protect. If consolations can’t be won with the tools that have been used for centuries, Republicans should convince more people of their position and win more seats. On the other side the Democrats have said they will no longer acquiesce to sabotage as a negotiating tactic.
Last time Republicans forced through spending cuts under threat of default, the credit rating of the U.S. was downgraded for the first time. An article in TIME magazine shortly thereafter analyzed the financial impact of those events. For cutting a couple hundred billion dollars from the budget, the downgrade is expected to cost the U.S. more than a trillion dollars in the form of higher interest rates.
Everybody understands we need to reduce our deficits and debt. That’s not really a debate anymore. But where did our current deficits originate? Let’s go back to 2000. Love him or hate him, Bill Clinton, along with a Republican majority in congress balanced the budget and even oversaw a surplus – we were paying down the debt!
We then elected President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, who famously said, “Ronald Regan proved deficits don’t matter.”
Indeed they governed with that philosophy. Even reasonable Republicans like John McCain were highly critical of the administration’s insistence on tax cuts at a time of multiple wars. In the end, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have cost multiple trillions of dollars, paid for entirely by deficit spending. Though they were operating under questionable information from the CIA and the administration regarding Iraq’s weapons capabilities, congress, including many Democrats, was complicit in creating these problems.
Midway through Bush’s presidency, these policies had turned the surplus into roughly $400 billion annual deficits. Then came the 2007 housing crisis, which had its roots in the Clinton era decision to unravel the Glass-Steagall Act that had kept banks out of speculative trading. The result was the Toxic Asset Relief Program (TARP), passed under Bush, which, despite its unpopularity, by most analytical economic analyses saved us from a depression.
These events led to President Obama’s first term that began in the midst of economic crisis. The deficit that was handed to Obama by the previous administration was $1.3 trillion. Despite conservative myth, this deficit wasn’t created by Obama, it was inherited just like a new owner of a failing company doesn’t create the initial red ink.
To stop the bleeding, Obama did several things, including the stimulus and bailing out the auto industry, again both unpopular and again highly successful programs according to non-partisan economic analyses. If anything, most economists would tell you the stimulus should have been even larger. Under Obama, our deficit is now shrinking at the most rapid pace in decades and this year’s projected deficit is $700 billion, about half of what it was at the beginning of his term.
Now what do Republicans want? Lower taxes, especially on the wealthy, further deregulation and an unleashing of the “free market.” If this recipe sounds familiar that’s because it’s the same shitty gluten free raisin cookie disaster your aunt made that gave you nightmare diarrhea. It’s a naïve solution, taken only on faith, that won’t work now just like it hasn’t worked in the past.
Conservatives love to say the government can’t do anything right and they have a handful of specific examples (Solyndra!) to which they always point. But that line of argument is and always has been stale. The government obviously has inefficiencies and mismanagement. But there are numerous governmental functions that don’t belong in the private sector and many success stories that go unnoticed or unappreciated, precisely because they work as designed. The National Parks, transportation infrastructure, research and development, the military, Medicare, and the justice system benefit the American people every day. Is Goldman Sachs going to self-regulate? When insurance companies operate as purely for profit entities, millions go sick. If federal lands aren’t protected, Yosemite Valley might be a Hetch Hetchy twin, Canyonlands would likely be decorated by oil rigs and Rocky Mountain National Park may have been logged bare. So any debate should really come down to a specific program’s merits and the return on investment rather than debating the absurd myth that government can do no good.
Another conservative myth is that more money in the hands of business owners somehow equates directly to more jobs. Any smart business owner will make hiring decisions based on one principle criterion: will the hire result in more profit? If the answer is yes, the hire will be made, if not, no incentive exists for creating a new job. CEOs are not charitable saints. Giving the Walmart CEO a $6,000,000 tax cut will, in and of itself, not create a single new job.
Now take a step back and ask, how did we get here? This is a debate of which came first the chicken or the egg. In no particular chronological order:
People stopped paying attention. Politicians stopped being truthful. The media became polarized and sensationalized. Big money’s influence in the political process became deafening.
As a consequence, the primary system has turned into a litmus test for both sides where reasonable, moderate candidates have no chance and incumbents run constant fundraising operations in a perpetual campaign. Both parties are clearly beholden to special interests and donors.
The difference at the moment is the left wing doesn’t control the Democratic Party like the Tea Party has a stranglehold over the Republican Party.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is a great illustration of these issues. For years innumerable polls have shown that the majority of Americans favor many of the pillars of the ACA, such as allowing a child to stay on a family insurance plan until age 26, stopping the practice of insurance companies rejecting individuals based on preexisting conditions, modernization of medical record keeping, expansion of preventative care, creating a minimum percentage of revenue insurance companies must put toward actual medical care, among many others.
The Affordable Care Act does these things while lowering the national debt in large part but not exclusively by insuring more people. Though exact figures may vary, in general this is not a matter of opinion among independent financial analysts. The House has voted to defund or repeal the ACA more than 40 times. One of these bills was H.R. 6079. According to the non-partisan Congressional Budges Office (CBO) in a letter to Speaker John Boehner,
“Assuming that H.R. 6079 is enacted near the beginning of fiscal year 2013, CBO and JCT estimate that, on balance, the direct spending and revenue effects of enacting that legislation would cause a net increase in federal budget deficits of $109 billion over the 2013–2022 period. Specifically, we estimate that H.R. 6079 would reduce direct spending by $890 billion and reduce revenues by $1 trillion between 2013 and 2022, thus adding $109 billion to federal budget deficits over that period.”
But despite the popularity of the individual components, the ACA as a whole elicits a much more negative response, often vehement. By design, most Republicans have come to view the law as a socialistic overreach of government imposed upon them by a President they don’t consider legitimate.
It’s a sad state when someone can’t differentiate between objective facts and an individual they’ve been conditioned to despise. I thought George W. Bush was a terrible president. But I’ll be the first to tell you he did some good things. He recognized the negative consequences, both environmental and otherwise, of our dependence on oil and fossil fuels. He put into place research programs, standards and investment in renewable energy. His immediate response to 9-11 lifted and unified the entire country.
Even though Barack Obama has been a fairly moderate president (just ask progressives who often feel betrayed by him), conservatives absolutely cannot bring themselves to give any idea a chance if Obama is publicly supportive of it. Many politicians have built their careers simply upon undermining his presidency. That self-created environment that equates compromise to weakness destroys the foundation that allows government to function.
This type of opposition has always existed, but it has come to saturate politics. A long history of escalating animosity, for which both sides share blame has led us to this point.
However, the reasons I tend to lean liberal don’t just boil down to specific issues. The reasons for my more ephemeral political identity can be illustrated with one example, consider it a metaphor for a host of issues, that hits home as a scientist:
According to a recent CNN survey, 97% of climatologists, those who actually study the climate for a living, believe global warming is real and is largely caused by humans. The conservative response to this is to attack scientists and science itself. Until these types of knee-jerk, ideological, head-in-the-sand reactions stop, the Republican party will keep fighting a losing game and take us down with them. We may differ on specific solutions and disagree philosophically on certain points, but until conservatives, at a bare minimum, embrace reality, we will all suffer.
Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Tex.):