Melanie Sturm | @ThinkAgainUSA
This year, Hollywood hit award pay dirt for political dramas inspired by American history. Unlike “The Avengers” -- the top-grossing super-hero movie -- best picture nominees “Argo,” “Lincoln,” and “Zero Dark Thirty” featured authentic, determined and courageous Americans who endured adversity and mortal danger to overcome morally inferior antagonists.
Though we’re living through the umpteenth act of a gory political spectacle involving the US budget, Think Again if you expect that Quentin Tarantino will adapt it for the silver screen. Devoid of heroes or valiant rescues, the drama serially unfolding in Washington isn’t even telenovela-worthy, particularly the latest installment known as the “sequester.”
The terrifying story-line echoed by media actors playing supporting roles -- draconian spending cuts will trigger airport delays, prisoner releases, uninspected food, heightened risk of terrorist attacks, and Armageddon – is intended to evoke fear and dread, transforming Americans into “Les Miserables.” Taking Harry Truman’s cue, “If you can’t convince them, confuse them,” leading actors willfully neglect to mention that in their parlance, a “cut” means a smaller increase. Hence, the last time federal spending declined, Marlon Brando and “On the Waterfront” won Oscars.
As Bob Woodward of “All The President’s Men” fame confirmed, the White House proposed the “sequester” in 2011 during debt-ceiling negotiations in return for raising the limit from $14.3 to $16.3 trillion. Designed as a “doomsday mechanism” to extract $1.2 trillion from the trajectory of spending growth over the next decade (during which we’re projected to spend $47 trillion), President Obama signed the sequester law in August 2011.
Despite having 18 months to “go line-by-line through the budget,” as Obama frequently promised, and in excess of $120 billion of annual government waste identified by the Government Accountability Office, no agreement was struck to avert this year’s $85 billion in discretionary spending reductions – split equally between defense and domestic programs -- and a 2 percent cut to Medicare providers. Now, the sky is falling.
ABC White House Correspondent Jonathan Karl chided the hysterics in his column, “Devastating Sequester Spending Cuts? Give Me a Break!” He wrote, “the automatic spending cuts set to go into effect on March 1 will cause some real pain and many economists believe they would hurt the economy. But all the dire warnings give the impression the cuts are much larger than they actually are.”
According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, the much-maligned sequester merely slows by 2.4 percent the growth of annual federal spending, which climbs by $2.4 trillion (instead of $2.5 trillion) to $5.9 trillion in 2023. Even after the sequester, the federal government will spend $15 billion more this year than last year and 30 percent more than in 2007. Additionally, after including tax increases agreed to in the “fiscal cliff” deal, the Budget Office projects an $845 billion deficit this year and an $8 trillion accumulated deficit through 2023, by which time national debt will be $26.1 trillion.
Since Americans live in the world’s largest and strongest economy, we’ve tolerated government excess, even agreeing with Will Rogers who said, “Be thankful we’re not getting all the government we’re paying for.” But after hurtling through successive manufactured crises, Americans empathize with Rogers who observed, “Last year we said ‘Things can’t go on like this’, and they didn’t, they got worse.”
That’s because, unlike Americans who are accustomed to making hard choices with “True Grit,” the federal government has operated without a budget since before “Hurt Locker” won best picture. Obama’s last two deficit-laden budgets won zero votes in Congress and the Senate hasn’t passed a budget in four years. Consequently, the default budget process assumes ever-increasing spending levels, “From Here to Eternity.”
But avoiding tough decisions means its easier to criticize others who do, like the House which has passed budgets incorporating reforms Obama once promised and his deficit commission recommended, as well as bills to rationally allocate the sequester’s crude cuts.
Seemingly willing to cause Americans to fear more than “fear itself,” the President is traveling the country – at great expense – to campaign against the sequester he proposed, painting rivals as “Inglourious Basterds”. Wouldn’t the national interest be better-served were Obama to propose priority-driven cuts? Why doesn’t he take a cue from Reagan and Clinton and pursue bi-partisan tax and entitlement reforms to boost the economy, address unsustainable growth in mandatory expenditures and secure vital discretionary programs?
After instituting similar reforms, Sweden achieved a remarkable economic turnaround following the 2008 financial crisis, and so can we. But we’ll need leaders who embody Steven Covey’s “habits of highly effective people” including: accept responsibility for one’s decisions, build cooperative relationships with rivals, take the blame and give the credit. Essentially, the “Silver Linings Playbook” for America requires leaders who are committed to win-win solutions, not merely winning.
Think Again – such a command performance would be a “hot ticket.”
Melanie Sturm | @ThinkAgainUSA
“First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage,” goes the rhyme. Unfortunately, in large swaths of American society, this rhyme is playing in reverse, with dire consequences for lower-income Americans.
Given five decades of deteriorating marriage trends, it appears Americans concur with H.L. Menken who joked, “Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who’d want to live in an institution?” Since 1960, the percentage of married Americans plunged from 72 percent to 51 percent last year, a record low. Meanwhile, babies born to unwed mothers skyrocketed from 4 percent in 1960 to 41 percent in 2011, another ominous record considering out-of-wedlock children are 82 percent more likely to suffer poverty and other social ills.
However, Think Again before assuming Americans, like Menken, believe “The longest sentence you can form with two words is ‘I do’.”
A 2010 Pew Research/Time Magazine survey concluded that the institution of marriage “remains revered and desired.” Though marriage isn’t “as necessary as it used to be,” the study reveals: married people are significantly happier with their family lives; seven-in-ten 18 to 29-year olds want to marry; and 77 percent of Americans believe marriage makes raising a family easier, which remains a “very important” reason to marry. If marriage is so revered, why aren’t more Americans marrying and having in-wedlock children?
The Pew study confirms what Charles Murray chronicles in his best-selling book “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.” American society is becoming as socially stratified as the vintage English world of “Downton Abbey.” Whereas in 1960, Americans shared bedrock moral values, behaviors and even neighborhoods, irrespective of class and education, today we’re separated into cultural and income enclaves with profoundly differing values and practices — upper-class “Belmont” neighborhoods where college-educated white-collar elites reside, and “Fishtown” where less-educated working-classes live.
“It’s not the existence of classes that is new,” Murray contends, “but the emergence of classes that diverge on core behaviors and values.” As Fishtown’s civil society atrophied, its residents suffered joblessness, family instability, poverty, government-dependency, crime and unhappiness. Meanwhile, cocooned Belmonters work, invest, marry, raise children, volunteer in the community, practice a religion – they prosper. To recover, Fishtown needs a civic Great Awakening to revive America’s original foundations of family, vocation, community, and faith.
More marriage and family formation is also needed to counter another grave challenge – declining fertility. After decades of deteriorating demographic trends, America needs more babies, asserts Jonathan Last in his new book, “What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster.” Since low birthrates are infectious, “there’s no precedent in recorded history of societies experiencing long-term peace and prosperity in the face of declining fertility and shrinking population.”
Low fertility and aging societies are less entrepreneurial, economically dynamic, and secure because risk-averse older people seek to preserve -- not invest -- capital; a shrinking base of workers must support ever-growing retiree expenditures; when older majorities disallow entitlement cuts requiring tax increases on the younger, it makes having babies (future taxpayers) less affordable; entitlements crowd out defense spending.
Notwithstanding the explosion of out-of-wedlock babies in Fishtown, America hasn’t sustained a fertility rate above the replacement rate of 2.1 births per woman since the 1960s. In 2011, it hit a record low 1.93. Consequently, America’s median age rose from 29.5 in 1960 to 37 today. Meanwhile, the ratio of workers to retirees shrank from 40 in 1946 to 2.9 today.
Though foreboding, America’s prospects are better than the rapidly aging nations of East Asia and Europe where decades of sub-replacement fertility rates are causing dramatic population contractions. Ironically, fertility decline was already a global phenomenon in 1968 when “The Population Bomb” by Paul Ehrlich predicted overpopulation would trigger imminent mass starvation.
Today, 97 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with declining fertility. To avert “turning into a decaying nation,” and facing a 1.3 fertility rate and devastating population declines, Russian President Vladimir Putin invited the trio Boys II Men to romance Russians into Valentine’s Day baby making.
In Japan -- where the fertility rate has been sub-1.5 since 1995 -- more adult diapers than baby diapers are sold and the economy has been stagnant for decades. With a median age of 45 and 2.6 workers per retiree (falling to 1.2 by 2050), spending on the elderly has exploded Japan’s debt-to-GDP to 229 percent. Last month, Japan’s new Finance Minister made headlines when he told a social security reform committee that the elderly should “hurry up and die.”
To avoid these economic and societal death rattles, America needs more marriages and babies – in that order. With an “ideal fertility rate” of 2.5 (according to Gallup), Americans actually want more babies, and as the Pitt/Jolie children attest, kids prefer married parents.
Think Again -- Wouldn’t it be wonderful to renew these commitments on Valentine’s Day?
Melanie Sturm | @ThinkAgainUSA
Believing a free press to be a vital safeguard of liberty, Thomas Jefferson said, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” Many believe the inverse of Jefferson’s maxim – the people are uninformed, therefore the government can’t be trusted. After all, what well-informed American would knowingly allow politicians to lead us to the monumental economic and budgetary “cliffs” we face?
Despite a proliferation of new media, it’s increasingly difficult to separate fact from narrative. Combined with rancorous political discourse in which opponents are demonized in order to delegitimize competing arguments and render unnecessary the defense of one’s own, demoralized Americans struggle to discern the truth.
When invited by the Aspen Times to help diversify their opinion page, I proposed my Think Again column as a fact-based, issue-oriented commentary that would challenge conventional wisdom and remind readers of the values that made America the freest and most prosperous nation in world history. Like “Ripley’s Believe it Or Not,” I attempt to expose readers to easily certifiable facts and perspectives they may not otherwise consider (see columns at www.thinkagainusa.com). The goal of Think Again is not to change minds, but to open them; for civil discourse requires being informed and thoughtful, which is the essence of citizenship.
Last month, a community member targeted me in letters-to-the-editor with an unusual level of hostility and mean-spiritedness – he accused me of being an egregious, bald-faced liar and an embarrassment to Americans. Declaring me guilty without any possibility of innocence (or trial), my accuser and those who defended him from criticism believe their claims are objectively true and mine are lies.
Calling someone a liar is the ultimate character assassination. It means truth doesn’t matter to that person and that lying is not only habitual, it’s an indelible mark of a deceitful and immoral character. According to ethicist Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of “Words That Hurt, Words That Heal,” the most grievous violation of ethical speech is “giving another a bad name,” for words are like bullets whose damage is mortal. To fight fairly, he writes, “you have the right to state your case, express your opinion, explain why you think the other party is wrong, even make clear how passionately you feel…You do not have a moral right to undercut your adversary’s position by invalidating him personally.”
In my columns, I’ve made the case that our undisciplined, indebted and special interest-oriented government is a bipartisan problem that subverts everybody’s interests. I’ve quoted Senator Tom Coburn, member of the Simpson-Bowles fiscal commission, who said, “Our economy is on the brink of collapse not because politicians can’t agree, but because they have agreed for decades…to borrow and spend far beyond our means… to create or expand nearly forty entitlement programs, carve out tax advantages for special interests, build bridges to nowhere and earmark tens of thousands of other pork projects.”
I believe it is a moral travesty that we’ve mortgaged our children’s futures because we’re unable to live within our means and are more indebted than any other nation in world history. Mandatory spending on “entitlements” (like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) is the single biggest financial problem we face, consuming 60 percent of our annual budget -- up from 21 percent in 1955. As baby boomers retire and live longer, the current spending trajectory is unsustainable. Without reforms, it’s unlikely these vital programs will be available for people who need them in the future.
One fact in particular irritated my accusers: we’ve spent less cumulatively on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars plus the 2008 TARP bailouts than we spend annually on mandatory programs. In contending I’m a liar, and without citing sources, they claim the wars’ total costs will exceed $5.8 trillion and that TARP exposure exceeds $15 trillion.
It’s not my goal to disprove their claims, only certify mine. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) -- created by Congress in 1974 to “provide objective, impartial information about budgetary and economic issues” -- federal spending (excluding interest expense) totaled $3.3 trillion in FY2012, of which $2.1 trillion were mandatory expenditures for entitlements. Meanwhile, CBO reports that through October 2012, a total of $1.4 trillion was spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, while TARP has cost a net of $24 billion, after repayments.
My accusers argue that “true” costs must project a decade’s worth of related and longer-term expenses. Therefore, we’ll have spent $29 trillion on mandatory expenditures through 2022, according to the President’s FY2013 budget, while unfunded liabilities exceed $60 trillion, according to the Trustees of Social Security and Medicare. To put these numbers in perspective, consider that one trillion hours ago dinosaurs roamed the earth.
No doubt, fighting fairly is difficult, especially given the personal narratives that inform how we see the world. But as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Unfortunately, the one thing on which die-hard partisans seem to agree is that only one party is at fault - and it isn't theirs. Unable to hold competing facts simultaneously in mind, it’s not surprising that inconvenient truths are considered lies.
But embedded within our First Amendment’s right to free speech is a responsibility not merely to tolerate others’ perspectives, but to listen. Imagine if my accusers and I were to summon the mutual respect necessary to listen to each other’s concerns. I’m confident we’d discover that despite our differences, we’re equally committed to a “more perfect union.”
Think Again – instead of playing the Liar Card, we might each learn something new, informing us enough to elect leaders who can be "trusted with our government."
Melanie Sturm | @ThinkAgainUSA
During the Civil War when the union’s preservation and slavery’s abolition were in doubt, President Lincoln roused the nation with his dream “of a place and a time where America will once again be seen as the last best hope of earth.” In rekindling our Founders’ vision, Lincoln helped assure that America would become the freest and most prosperous nation on earth, a status successive US presidents have dutifully maintained, or they were cast aside by voters.
As Americans Think Again about President Obama, consider that no president has won re-election amid such economic stagnation, declining incomes, high gas prices and business pessimism. Living astonishingly beyond our means and more indebted than any other nation in world history, Americans face a reduced standard of living, diminished opportunities for our children, and a weakened capacity to secure our national interests in a menacing world.
After trillions in fiscal and monetary stimulus, the 39-month old economic recovery has one-seventh the GDP growth rate of the Reagan recovery in which double-digit inflation and interest rates were also slain. With 261,000 fewer jobs today than January 2009 (despite population growth of 9 million), exploding poverty, government dependency, and income inequality imperil Lincoln’s dream.
During the economic turmoil of 2008, Obama sounded Lincoln-esque, promising to “provide good jobs to the jobless…secure our nation and restore our image as the last best hope on Earth.” But unlike Presidents Kennedy, Reagan and Clinton who understood the benefits of economic growth policies – more and better jobs, larger paychecks, growing tax revenues without tax rate increases, and deficit and debt mitigation -- Obama doubled down on government-centric and budget-busting policies.
Having inherited a government moving in the wrong direction on bailouts, spending, deficits and debt accumulation, Obama floored the gas. Though critical of Bush’s $4 trillion in accumulated debt and vowing to halve the annual deficit by now, Obama has run four successive trillion-dollar deficits – each nearly triple Bush’s average -- while increasing debt nearly $6 trillion to a sum ($16.1 trillion) that exceeds the US economy. Historically, America’s economy has grown faster than its debt -- until Obama, under whom debt is growing $2.50 for every dollar of GDP growth.
With 10,000 baby boomers turning 65 every day, manditory expenditures for Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid are exploding, consuming more annually than the combined cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and TARP bailouts. Rather than address the looming entitlement crisis, Obama’s budget projects massive deficits and $20 trillion in debt by the end of his second term. So fiscally irresponsible, not one member of Congress -- not even a single Democrat -- has voted to approve either of Obama’s last two annual budgets.
Meanwhile, with Democrats in complete control of Congress through January 2011, Obama’s signature legislative “reforms” – Obamacare and Dodd-Frank – ignored Republican solutions, and imposed thousands of complex regulations and new taxes on the private economy, nearly paralyzing job creation and economic growth.
Though sold as “Wall Street reform”, Dodd-Frank makes bailouts more likely by designating selected banks “too-big-to-fail” and failing to reform the financial crisis’ real culprits -- housing-finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. With smaller banks competitively disadvantaged, lending is down, consumer prices are up, and expensive consultants, like the former chiefs-of-staff to both Dodd and Frank, are in demand.
Neither is Obamacare meeting its promises. Insurance premiums are up $2,500 and according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), Obamacare will cost nearly twice its original estimate, leave 30 million Americans uninsured, and cause 20 million people to lose their employer-provided health insurance. Additionally, it imposes 20 new taxes on families and small businesses and incentivizes employers to hire part-time instead of full-time workers.
Thanks to recent technological breakthroughs, America is now the most energy-endowed nation in the world. Allowing the responsible development of our resources would generate millions of jobs while turbo-charging the economy and revitalizing distressed communities. Yet despite promising an “all-of-the-above” energy policy while investing $90 billion in uncompetitive green energy companies, Obama blocked the Keystone XL pipeline and reduced drilling permits on public lands by 36 percent, compared to increases of 116 and 58 percent under Bush and Clinton, respectively.
Meanwhile, GDP growth slumped to 1.3 percent in the second quarter, but Obama proposes to increase tax rates on “millionaires and billionaires” (individuals and small businesses making over $250,000) to promote fairness, after opposing them in 2010 when the economy was growing at twice its current rate. But how can it be fair to implement a policy that the CBO considers economically injurious and would yield only enough revenue to fund 8.5 days of government spending? Given Obama’s track record, how could another four years of the same policies result in enough economic growth to overcome our economic challenges?
Mindful of these challenges and eager to diffuse the debt bomb while preserving entitlement programs for future generations, Governor Romney proposes to expand the private economy with spending, regulatory, tax and entitlement reforms reminiscent of those enacted by Kennedy, Reagan and Clinton – modern America’s most successful economic stewards. Romney proposes to cut tax rates by 20 percent for all Americans while maintaining the same share of taxes paid by the wealthy. But unlike Bush, he’ll pay for them by eliminating expensive loopholes only accessible to wealthy individuals and companies like GE.
Divided as we were during the Civil War, Americans long to be unified by a leader, like Lincoln, committed to expanding liberty and increasing individual opportunity -- the source of human flourishing and America’s promise.
Think Again – only by restoring these cultural bulwarks can we pass our children a strong America, and remain the last best hope of earth.
Melanie Sturm | @ThinkAgainUSA
Beyond the realm of inconvenient truths, there’s a dimension to which Bill Clinton occasionally retreats. It’s a dimension of fertile imaginations, sound bites and mind games whose boundaries the gullible determine. In this wondrous land, tokes aren’t inhaled, sex with interns isn’t sex, and the meaning of “is” isn’t always is. When Clinton wags his finger to punctuate a claim, like “no president – not me or any of my predecessors -- could have repaired all the damage in just four years,” it’s his poker “tell.” Next stop: the Twilight Zone.
Ironically, the president who rode to victory in 1992 on the theme “it’s the economy, stupid,” now suggests it’s stupid to examine the 39-month old economic recovery which, we were promised, would yield 4 percent gross-domestic-product growth and 5.6 percent unemployment -- not the current 1.6 percent and 7.8 percent, respectively. Before crossing over to the land of suspended disbelief, Think Again.
In fact, until now, all presidents over the last 75 years have performed better. As Milton Friedman observed, and a November 2011 Federal Reserve study verified, the worse the recession – even when caused by a financial crisis -- the stronger the recovery, absent bad government policies like those that prolonged and deepened the Great Depression.
Despite record levels of stimulation that exploded government spending to 25 percent of GDP (up from a 60-year 18 percent average) and four consecutive years of trillion-dollar deficits, an Associated Press study concluded “that by just about any measure”…this is “the feeblest economic recovery since the Great Depression. More than any other …people who have jobs are hurting: Their paychecks have fallen behind inflation.” Consequently, income inequality has materially worsened and, as Vice President Biden noted last week, “the middle class has been buried the last four years.”
The annals of post World War II economic recoveries show Biden is right. Never before have Americans suffered such poor prospects nor sought such refuge in safety net programs. When counting the millions of discouraged Americans no longer in the labor force, true unemployment is 14.7 percent. Meanwhile median household income has dropped nearly 5 percent, amidst exploding gas and food prices. Not surprisingly, a record number of Americans now claim federal disability checks and food stamps, up nearly 20 and 44 percent, respectively.
President Reagan inherited the other “worst” post WW II recession and, unlike the most recent, had to contend with double-digit inflation and interest rates, in addition to double-digit unemployment. By this point in his presidency, Reagan’s pro-growth policies had unleashed the economy, resulting in 7.1 percent unemployment, rising median incomes and 11 percent GDP growth.
Most importantly, Reagan’s work with Democratic house leader Tip O’Neill to implement historic tax, social security and immigration reforms -- and Clinton’s collaboration with Republican house leader Newt Gingrich to reduce government spending, lower taxes on investment, implement “consensus deregulation,” and reform welfare -- fueled the greatest economic boom in world history from 1982 to 2007. As business investment grew, so did the job market and the number of Americans paying taxes, confirming what President Kennedy said “is a paradoxical truth that…the soundest way to raise [tax] revenues in the long run is to cut [tax] rates now.”
If the current “recovery” had merely performed as well as the average of all post-World War II recoveries, current US GDP would be $1.2 trillion larger and 7.9 million more Americans would have jobs. Americans have been denied this prosperity because of unprecedented levels of government spending, job-killing regulation, and crony capitalism – partisan policies which large majorities of business leaders in two recent surveys (Business Roundtable and National Federation of Independent Business) say hurt them.
That 55 percent of small business owners surveyed wouldn’t start their business today reflects a lack of confidence in the economy’s future, imperiled as it is by $16 trillion in debt (up 50 percent since January 2009), a sum larger than the US economy. When interest rates increase from historic lows, larger interest payments will necessitate draconian budget cuts and increased taxes. Absent rapid GDP growth to bring debt-to-GDP levels down to manageable norms, Americans can’t be confident in a future that holds only two unacceptable alternatives – substantial tax increases or sustained inflation.
As the president who declared the era of big government over, Clinton understands our perilous fiscal state. Were he to emerge from the Twilight Zone, he’d agree that government spending should be capped at 20 percent of GDP -- the average during his presidency and a Romney campaign promise. He’d be opposed to increasing taxes in a fragile economy, as President Obama proposes. Most importantly, he’d be appalled at the lack of leadership evident in Obama’s budget – no plan to address the looming fiscal crisis and trillion-dollar deficits into oblivion.
Think Again – outside the Twilight Zone, it’s the pro-growth policies, stupid!
Melanie Sturm | @ThinkAgainUSA
Mark Twain famously remarked, “No man's life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.” So when Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren proclaimed “the system is rigged” in her prime-time speech at the democratic convention -- Bill Clinton’s warm-up act – it appeared she agreed with Twain and 69 percent of Americans who believe “politicians break the rules to help people who give them money,” according to an August Rasmussen poll.
Before assuming Warren blames politicians for rigging the system, Think Again. In fact, as an advocate of an assertive and growing federal government run by benevolent and enlightened policymakers, Warren is out of sync with Mark Twain, public opinion, and America’s founders who feared a system rigged by powerful elites, like the British one they overturned.
When Thomas Jefferson asked if a “man cannot be trusted with the government of himself, can he then be trusted with the government of others,” he expressed our founders’ concern that future politicians would encroach on our newly declared natural rights and liberties, leading America into “debt, corruption and rottenness.” Hence, our founders designed a government with limited powers to serve -- not rule -- the people, and to protect our inalienable rights, not confer privileges to special interests.
Today, our founders’ worst nightmares are reality -- the system is indeed rigged. The government’s share of the economy has exploded to 25 percent, dampening the private sector as powerful politicians allow favored beneficiaries to feed at the federal trough. The negative returns from these policies Warren calls “investments” have pushed America down the “global competitiveness” rankings -- from number one in 2008 to number seven today -- according to the newly released World Economic Forum report that blames unsustainable debt, cronyism, regulation, and economic stagnation for the fall.
Politicians promised that “investments” like the 2009 Stimulus would revive our economy and reduce unemployment, yet $830 billion later we’re worse off. Even since the official start of the “recovery” in June 2009: economic growth is 40 percent of the historic average for post-recession rebounds; the percentage of Americans with a job is the lowest in decades and the real unemployment rate is 19 percent as four times more workers left the workforce last month than entered it; median household income is down sharply while food stamp usage and federal disability checks have skyrocketed; and poverty rates are near a 50-year high.
As she laments the suffering middle class, why doesn’t Warren evaluate whether the activist government policies she advocates actually underlie this despair? Shouldn’t she query why the president’s 2013 Federal Budget garnered no votes in Congress and why the Senate has failed for the fourth consecutive year to uphold it’s constitutional duty to pass a budget?
She'd find politicians fearful of endorsing a budget that borrows $1.3 trillion to fund the government, after paying for mandatory expenditures such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and interest on the debt. But as federal debt spiked $5.4 trillion since January 2009, topping $16 trillion last week — a sum one-quarter of the combined gross domestic product of every country in the world — why isn't Warren proposing a plan to avert the looming fiscal crisis?
Unless reformed, Social Security and Medicare won’t exist for younger generations. Nevertheless, Warren ignores this tragedy preferring to wax eloquent about “a level playing field where everyone pays a fair share and everyone has a real shot”…. because “the economy doesn’t grow from the top down, but from the middle class out and the bottom up.” But how do we secure a middle class out of government jobs paid for with borrowed dollars? Does our undisciplined, indebted and special interest-oriented government subvert the private economy, undermining the middle class and those who aspire to it?
This is the argument of Senator Tom Coburn’s book “The Debt Bomb,” endorsed by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles on whose fiscal commission he served. Contrary to the narrative that blames lobbyists and gridlock, Coburn contends, “Congress has been an assembly line of new programs and a favor factory for special interests. Our economy is on the brink of collapse not because politicians can’t agree, but because they have agreed for decades…to borrow and spend far beyond our means… to create or expand nearly forty entitlement programs, carve out tax advantages for special interests, build bridges to nowhere and earmark tens of thousands of other pork projects.”
Anxious to prevent an economic calamity worse than 2008, Coburn urges Americans to drain Washington’s stagnant pond, refilling it with public servants committed to un-rigging the system that’s left millions of Americans “on their own,” deprived of jobs and hopes of finding one. Without a plan to solve our economic and fiscal woes, Warren is an accomplice to the rigged system she denounces.
Think Again Elizabeth Warren — telling the truth and taking responsibility distinguish great leaders from mere politicians.
Melanie Sturm | @ThinkAgainUSA
Last Saturday, as Americans debated whether Lance Armstrong was a genuine hero after dropping his fight with the US Anti-Doping Agency, another Armstrong – an undisputable American hero -- died. Were Webster’s to pair Neil Armstrong with hero in its dictionary, one needn’t Think Again to fathom the bravery, achievement, and nobility implied by the word.
By fulfilling President Kennedy’s audacious goal to have an American walk on the moon within the decade, Neil Armstrong is remembered for the skill, courage, grace under pressure, and innate humility necessary to achieve “one giant leap for mankind,” while crediting legions of dedicated others for the “one small step for man” he took on July 20, 1969. Upon fulfilling his mission, he didn’t spike the football or parlay fame into power or fortune. He receded into dignified private life to teach and inspire future generations.
In breaking the sad news, NBC’s Brian Williams asserted, “we have lost the last American hero,” as if surrendering America’s heroic destiny to our era’s chaos and controversy. Yet throughout our tumultuous history, Americans have proven “where there’s a will, there’s a way” -- starting with George Washington, who summoned heroism in his beleaguered troops by crossing the icy Delaware River enroute to American independence.
Though Thomas Jefferson warned “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground,” our founders established “a government of the people, by the people, for the people,” knowing it was a precondition to a dynamic, prosperous and free society. We fought the Civil War so this American ideal wouldn’t perish from the earth. Now, with our faith in the American Dream rattled, we face another great challenge.
Today we suffer unprecedented levels of economic stagnation, long-term unemployment, and government dependency. Despite a record $830 billion stimulus enacted in February 2009, this recovery (which technically began in June 2009) is the weakest of the 11 tracked since World War II. Stimulus advocates promising the unemployment rate wouldn’t exceed 8 percent (though it has for 42 consecutive months), were also wrong in forecasting a 5.5 percent rate by now.
Even since the “recovery’s” start, economic trends have deteriorated: the ranks of the long-term unemployed grew by 800,000; those no longer in the labor force increased 8 million; and food stamp spending doubled to $85 billion. New York Times economics columnist Catherine Rampell reported that median household incomes declined more (4.8 percent) during the “recovery” -- even among the continuously employed -- than they fell (2.8 percent) during the preceding 18-month recession. Consequently, 85 percent of the much-discussed American middle class report that it’s now harder to maintain their standard of living, according to Pew Research.
Humorist PJ O’Rourke said, “giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.” Refusing to relinquish their intoxicating power to spend and borrow, political leaders have subverted the national interest by causing four consecutive trillion-dollar deficits. With government spending at stratospheric levels, we charge $41,222 to our children’s credit card every second. At $16 trillion, our national debt is up 50 percent since January 2009, exceeding the size of our economy. When added to future Medicare and Social Security claims, it totals $136 trillion -- an incomprehensible, indefensible, and morally reprehensible sum.
Anyone who’s balanced a checkbook -- or watched events unfold in Europe -- understands that red ink turns to blood, particularly when interest rates rise above historic lows. So, how can we trust leaders who won’t see and aren’t planning to avert the fiscal black hole toward which we’re rocketing? Shouldn’t we urge courageous leaders to redirect our perilous trajectory toward a safe landing?
As the cliché goes, “if we can send a man to the moon,” we can restore America’s promise to secure a more stable and prosperous future. After instituting reforms to entitlement programs and its tax code, Canada achieved a remarkable economic turnaround, and so can we. It will require a Kennedy-esque leader to define the challenge as the fiscal equivalent of the moonshot, and to summon the political will for lift-off against fierce gravitational forces.
As a firm believer in Americans, Abraham Lincoln said, “If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.” Eager for blast off is a nation of unassuming and reluctant heroes – ordinary Americans. Spoken to like adults, and with the facts in hand, we have the “right stuff” to enable another “giant leap for mankind.” If this isn’t our generation’s most important mission, what is?
Think Again – our children need us to be their heroes.
Melanie Sturm | @ThinkAgainUSA
Last week, amidst the firestorm over the words “you didn’t build that,” actor Sherman Hemsley passed away. Americans remember Hemsley for playing George Jefferson, TV’s popular upwardly mobile black businessman. Known for “movin’ on up to the east side” out of Archie Bunker’s neighborhood, we cheered George as he strutted triumphantly into his “deluxe apartment in the sky,” having “finally got a piece of the pie.”
Imagine George’s reaction were anyone to tell him that government was integral to his success, or that he didn’t build his business on his own -- he’d slam the door while hollering “Think Again!”
Considering half of small businesses fail within five years, entrepreneurs like George deserve credit for more than “a whole lotta tryin’ just to get up that hill.” Despite the risks of failure, George made it “in the big leagues” because he possessed unique entrepreneurial traits: business acumen, self-sacrifice, leadership and a willingness to hurdle government obstacles.
Personal fulfillment derived from “odds-beating” industriousness is why America’s founders enshrined the right to pursue happiness in our national creed. Earned success is both materially enriching and spiritually uplifting – and the source of America’s extraordinary prosperity.
Now in the midst of what CBS News labeled “the worst economic recovery America has ever had,” risk-takers like George deserve encouragement, not derision -- nor the toxic cocktail of tax hikes and increased regulations they face. Since 1993, their small businesses have created two-thirds of private sector jobs. Furthermore, they and their employees are among a shrinking percentage of Americans who pay taxes to a government whose current annual deficit is the size of President Clinton’s first budget.
When tax-hike proponents justify expansive government by praising its most legitimate and necessary functions, they’re like David Copperfield, expertly distracting us with one hand so we don’t notice the other. The concern isn’t spending on roads, bridges, teachers or fireman; it’s the 60% of the federal budget consumed by our massive welfare state -- a catchall for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and dozens of other “safety net” programs created by vote-hungry politicians.
Because all citizens -- not just the poor -- receive federal benefits, we’re all self-entitled “welfare queens” now. Consequently, welfare state defenders know it’s the proverbial “third rail” – politicians touch it at their peril.
The welfare state is the single biggest financial problem we face, annually consuming more than the combined cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars plus the TARP bailouts. Like the “blob,” it grows by devouring everything in its path, requiring us to borrow $41,222 per second just to keep government running. At almost $16 trillion, the national debt exceeds the size of our economy and is growing so rapidly, the Congressional Budget Office predicted it could cause a permanent recession by 2025.
Like an overweight jockey riding an emaciated thoroughbred, our bloated government sector is not only crushing the private economy, it’s handicapping our opportunity society. Americans are aspirational and self-reliant people, so it’s heart wrenching to note that after spending $15 trillion in the “War on Poverty,” America’s poverty rate has barely budged, food stamp dependency is at a record high, and the percentage of Americans in the work force is at a record low.
As economist Herb Stein said, “If something can’t go on forever, it will stop.” New York Times columnist Bill Keller called for that last week writing, “We should make a sensible reform of entitlements our generation’s cause.”
But now that we’re in the fourth consecutive year in which the US Senate has abdicated its duty to pass a budget for fear of electoral consequences, where are the courageous leaders willing to discharge this fiscal suicide bomb? How do we secure America as a beacon of opportunity (and preserve benefit programs for the generations of Americans paying for them) unless we insist on the distinction between a welfare program and a welfare state?
Our founders were concerned America would reach this moment. John Adams warned: “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” Americans are concerned too, according to last week’s Rasmussen survey in which a record low 14 percent expect today’s children to be better off than their parents.
We didn’t build the welfare state, but now that it’s crumbling and imperiling our way of life, we have the opportunity to transform our government so that it will serve us better. Doing so will renew the moral promise inherent in the American Dream while making it accessible to all.
With free markets and limited government, entrepreneurial risk takers like George Jefferson can deliver renewed opportunity and prosperity, just as they took us from a colonial backwater to an economic superpower.
Think Again -- so our children can earn “a piece of the pie.”
Melanie Sturm | @ThinkAgainUSA
The French celebrated Bastille Day last week, 219 years after beheading Marie-Antoinette in the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. To this day, she’s the poster-child for upper-class excess, entitlement and insensitivity -- the ultimate “1 Percenter.”
However, Think Again before believing every demonization you hear, especially without factcheck.org. In truth, though a privileged aristocrat, Marie-Antoinette was not only a faithful Good Samaritan, she actually never uttered the notorious catchphrase “Let them eat cake.” Never mind those silly details -- social justice was at stake!
By portraying Marie-Anoinette as selfish and out-of-touch, the revolutionaries justified their bloodthirsty mob rule and indiscriminate savagery. Declaring “liberty, equality and fraternity,” they ushered in an anti-democratic period of unlimited governmental power, civil strife, and economic despair, though eventually Enlightenment principles transformed France into a vibrant democracy.
Today, France has Europe’s most state-directed economy, and among its most stagnant and indebted. Prioritizing “the collective interest,” the French prefer government to free market solutions spending more on social welfare than any other developed country. Recently, the anti-wealth rhetoric of newly elected President Hollande -- and his plans to hike taxes – made London the sixth largest French city, to its mayor’s delight.
Similarly Enlightenment-inspired, though resentful of strong government, American revolutionaries devised a system to protect individual liberties. James Madison wrote, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men… controls on government would (not) be necessary. In framing a government… you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
While the French were sticking dissenters’ heads on bayonets, Americans enacted a Constitution designed to disperse authority in order to protect the moral promise in our Declaration of Independence: that every individual is born with equal and inalienable rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. Thus, the American Revolution facilitated the creation of the freest and most prosperous society on earth.
Over the last century, while America’s free economy boomed attracting immigrants to our opportunity society, politicians were busy encumbering it, à la française. They instituted the income tax, asserted extra-constitutional powers to regulate, dabbled in cronyism and created entitlement programs that now consume 65 percent of the federal budget. Once 3 percent of gross domestic product, government spending is now 25 percent, crowding out the private economy and producing daily deficits of $4 billion.
Consequently, we suffer French-size economic stagnation, unemployment, and debt (up 50 percent since January 2009). Poverty rates are the highest since tracking began in 1959; food stamp dependency is exploding; and the percentage of Americans with a job is the lowest in decades. Not surprisingly, two-thirds of Americans say we’re on the wrong track and that there’s too much government power and too little individual freedom.
Meanwhile, clueless that government policies influence economic decisions, politicians now propose increasing taxes. “Taxmageddon” -- the toxic mix of year-end tax increases – is causing businesses to defer hiring and investment. Even if limited to the top two-percent with incomes over $250,000 (which includes small businesses responsible for half of private sector jobs and $720 billion in earnings), tax increases would create serious recessionary headwinds while funding only 8.5 days of federal spending, per the Congressional Budget Office. This is a blueprint to cripple job creation, and 23 million job-seeking Americans.
Though they agreed it was economically injurious to hike taxes in 2010 when the economy was growing at twice its current rate, tax-hikers argue it’s now about fairness while referencing the “roaring 90’s” when rates were higher but before explosions in spending, debt, and stagnation. What's fair about increasing taxes knowing the vulnerable will suffer disproportionately?
What is fair considering 2009 IRS data shows the top one-percent and top five-percent paid 37 percent and 64 percent respectively of federal income taxes, while the bottom half paid two percent? If the richest aren’t yet paying their fair share, doesn’t that suggest they don’t merit their earned success? By denying some Americans their earned success, doesn’t that undermine our opportunity society and social cohesion?
Having migrated toward French values, practices and even their anti-wealth rhetoric, its hard to recall our Founders' belief that government’s role is to protect – not grant -- individual rights and property. To reinvigorate our free society and market economy, we need a true “fairness agenda”: a simpler tax code with fewer special interest loopholes, no more corporate welfare, and reforms that preserve entitlement programs for future generations.
Most importantly, we must recover the private initiative that French historian Alexis de Tocqueville found exceptional in 1830s America: ““In every case at the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government ... in America you’re sure to find an association.”
By renewing our commitment to individual liberties and the ethic that each of us – not government -- is our brother’s keeper, Americans “have it in our power to begin the world all over again,” as American revolutionary Thomas Paine wrote.
Wouldn’t our Founders want us to Think Again?
Melanie Sturm | @ThinkAgainUSA
Last week after his criminal trial ended with a hung jury, John Edwards proclaimed hopefully, “I don’t think God is through with me,” as he planted the seeds for his comeback. Projecting the false modesty and manufactured authenticity that vaulted the one-term Senator toward the Presidency, Edwards personifies Graucho Marx’s maxim that “the secret to life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you've got it made."
In response to Edwards, I imagined a collective uproar: “Think Again, John -- the jig is up!” As Edwards exits stage left, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker takes center stage. He, along with brave governors in New Jersey, Indiana, South Carolina, Louisiana, and possibly even New York, represent a new breed of leader emboldened to end public sector unions’ stranglehold on our governments and economy.
Putting aside Edwards’ despicable personal conduct, he is emblematic of the corrupt patronage system that Governor Scott Walker ended in Wisconsin -- the one that allows government unions to cement relationships with self-serving politicians, leaving taxpayers unrepresented and rendering many states insolvent. By voting decisively to retain Walker (the only US governor to survive a recall), Cheeseheads declared the jig is finally up for this brand of special-interest cronyism and the politicians who perpetuate it – at least in Wisconsin.
The truth is, public-sector unions don’t serve a compelling social need since governments don’t exploit labor for profits. Furthermore, as Franklin Roosevelt cautioned, “the process of collective bargaining…. cannot be transplanted into the public service...[without risking] paralysis of government by those who have sworn to support it.” Realizing this, President Carter reduced collective-bargaining rights for federal employees by signing the Civil Service Reform Act.
It’s ironic that public sector unions met their match in Wisconsin, the birthplace of American progressivism and public sector unionism where roughly two-thirds of voters either are or are related to union members. Now, progressive Wisconsin is proof that the crisis of the modern entitlement state being played out worldwide -- from the Eurozone to California -- doesn’t have to be a Greek tragedy.
In Wisconsin, even union sympathizers realize everyone is ill served when the government can't meet its obligations. They know the promises politicians make far exceed our ability to pay and, watching Europe implode from the same disorder, realize there is only one choice -- reduced yet sustainable government or bankruptcy. Wisconsin voted for balance knowing the essential first step on the path to prosperity and opportunity is for governments to recover fiscal soundness.
That was Walker’s pledge in 2010. Facing the fourth highest tax burden in the country and determined to reverse Wisconsin’s $3.6 billion deficit without raising taxes or firing workers, Walker’s reforms disallowed collective bargaining for public-employee unions (except police and firefighters). No longer can unions negotiate their taxpayer-funded benefits with politicians they helped elect using mandatory dues. Additionally, Walker asked government employees to contribute modestly more to their health and retirement benefits. Even after these reforms, Wisconsin workers enjoy “a combined salary-benefits compensation premium of around 22 percent over private sector workers,” according to an American Enterprise Institute study released last month.
Though modest, the unions and their allies reacted ferociously to these reforms, like a mama bear defending her cub. They captured national attention with protests, runaway state senators, legal challenges and state senator recall elections. Despite their efforts, they couldn’t overcome the will of the people -- to keep the reforms.
That’s because Walker’s reforms are succeeding: The budget has a $150 million surplus; property taxes are lower; the unemployment rate is 6.8 percent (the lowest since 2008 and well below the national average); the private sector created 26,000 jobs in 2011; and savings realized by school districts have preserved jobs and educational programming. Most encouraging, according to a Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce survey in May, 73 percent of employers predicted moderate to good business growth and more than half plan to expand operations within two years – the highest rate in a decade.
No wonder one-third of union members voted for Walker, according to exit polls. Seeing union policies drain government finances, endanger vital government services, and undermine their own jobs and benefits, why would union members want to pay their dues? Now that they have the option not to, tens of thousands have opted out. Perhaps this is the best outcome of all, for civil society is healthier when government employees believe they’re on the same side as taxpayers.
As CS Lewis said, “We all want progress, but if you're on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.”
Though it’s too late for Edwards, other self-proclaimed “progressives” must Think Again – good policy makes great politics.