Sunday, June 5, 2011

The kind of nation we really want

With Tea Party conservatives and many Republicans balking at raising the debt ceiling let me offer an example of a nation that lives up to their ideals:

This particular nation has among the lowest tax burdens of any major country: fewer than 2 percent of the people pay any taxes. Government is limited, so that burdensome regulations never kill jobs. This society embraces traditional religious values and a conservative sensibility. Nobody minds school prayer, same-sex marriage isn’t imaginable, and criminals are never coddled. The budget priority is a strong military, the nation’s most respected institution. When generals decide on a policy for, say, Afghanistan, politicians defer to them. Citizens are deeply patriotic, and nobody burns flags. 

So where is this Republican Eden, this Utopia? 

I will tell you shortly – keep reading.

The United States is, of course, in no danger of actually becoming a European socialist country any more than we are going to become a third world country at the other extreme. But as America has become more unequal, as we cut off government lifelines to the neediest Americans, as half of the states plan to cut spending on education this year, including colleges, let’s be clear about our direction – and about the turnaround that a Republican budget victory would represent. 

Developing countries, from Congo to Colombia are typically characterized by minimal taxes, high levels of inequality, free-wheeling businesses and high military expenditures. In Latin American, African or Asian countries, one will sometimes see shiny tanks and fighter aircraft but schools have trouble paying teachers. Sound familiar? And the result is societies that are quasi-feudal, stratified by social class, and held back by a limited sense of common purpose. 

Wealthy people in such countries manage to live surprisingly comfortably. Instead of financing education with taxes, these feudal elites send their children to elite private schools. Instead of financing a reliable police force, they hire bodyguards. Instead of supporting a modern health care system for their nation, they fly to hospitals in London. Instead of paying taxes for a reliable electrical grid, each wealthy family installs its own powerful generator to run the lights and air-conditioning. It’s noisy and stinks, but at least you don’t have to pay for the poor. 

I see echoes of that pattern of privatization of public services in America. Maybe that’s why the growing inequality in America pains me so. The wealthiest 1% of Americans already has a greater net worth than the bottom 90 percent, based on Federal Reserve data. Yet two-thirds of the proposed Republican budget cuts would harm low- and moderate-income families, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. 

Police budgets are being cut, but the wealthy take refuge in gated communities with private security guards. Their children are spared the impact of budget cuts at public schools and state universities because they attend private institutions. Mass transit is underfinanced; after all, Mercedes-Benzes and private jets are much more practical, no? And maybe the most striking push for reversal of historical trends is the Republican plan to dismantle Medicare as a universal health care program for the elderly. 

The long trajectory of history has been for governments to take on more responsibilities, and for citizens to pay more taxes. Now we’re at a turning point, with Republicans arguing that we need to reverse course. So during the 2012 political debates, let’s remember that we’re arguing not only over debt ceilings and budgets, but about larger questions of our vision for our country. 

Now would you like to know which country I described at the beginning of this article?

It is Pakistan.

When many Republicans insist on “starving the beast” of government, cutting taxes, regulations and social services – slashing everything but the military – those are steps toward a third-world-type government. 

Do we really want to take a step in the direction of a low-tax laissez-faire Republican Eden like Pakistan?

History of Medicare:

This op-ed is an edited version of: