|Apr/May 2009 Salon|
In the world of medicine, there are two kinds of surgery: the elective and the required. An elective surgery is when a perfectly healthy young man decides, as I did when I turned eighteen, that his nose should look a little less like Ichabod Crane's, and he pays a Beverly Hills doctor to make it so. A required surgery is when a physician finds a malignant lump in your mother's breast, as happens to approximately 200,000 women per year in the United States, and it is determined with a heavy heart that the only way to save her life is for a surgeon to go in, invasively, and remove the breast.
There are also two kinds of government spending: the elective and the required.
Congressional Republicans and frantic conservative pundits are currently all a froth at the new administration's gargantuan stimulus plan. At $787 billion dollars, the spending is aimed at staving off an economic depression, creating or saving close to four million jobs, and making a long term investment in, among other worthy programs, America's outmoded transportation, health care and education infrastructure. Although there are no guarantees that the stim will work exactly as planned, its intent is as clear as it is necessary: to create short-term job growth and jolt the economy now, while investing in long term priorities which will continue to grease the country's economic engine. The plan's critics, however, would have us believe that President Obama is simply a profligate spender run amok whose sole intent is to "change" America into a Western Europe-style socialist state and "hope" that nobody notices.
I am pleased for the Republicans that they have, at long last, "re-found their voice" as the scowling, rigidly doctrinaire conscience of the American pocketbook. Stella has got her political groove back. I get it. The only problem is, as President Obama and others have noted, these suddenly die-hard fiscal hawks have zero credibility when it comes to deficits. Their newfound refusal to abide government spending is, in the face of the current global economic crisis, grossly opportunistic and terribly irresponsible. But it is also breathtakingly hypocritical.
When fiscal conservative Bill Clinton left office, George W. Bush and his GOP cohorts inherited a balanced budget and a substantial surplus. Eight years later, Barack Obama inherited a $1 trillion dollar deficit. That's right, Virginia: the Republicans spent tax payer dollars like drunken sailors on an eight year shore leave. Worse still, this record deficit was wholly avoidable, the result of completely elective spending, most of which was wasted on the criminally unnecessary war in Iraq and tax cuts for the rich that even John McCain called "immoral."
The decision to invade Baghdad was, not unlike my rhinoplasty, completely by choice. Almost all of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, there was no demonstrable evidence linking Al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein, and, as became abundantly clear, there were no weapons of mass destruction. There were plenty of experts who spoke out against the invasion, criticizing both its strategy and its ostensible underlying justification. But those who did were attacked and ignored (Dr. Hans Blix), lost their jobs (Eric Shinseki) and/or had their character assassinated and wife's secret cover blown (Joe Wilson). Rather than focus on the more objectively justifiable but less sexy, less "winnable" conflict in Afghanistan—a country known more for its impassable mountains than its oil reserves—Bush and his neocon cronies decided to take a long held but politically untenable desire—to invade Iraq and get rid of Hussein—and make it a reality, now with All New & Improved Political Cover. Clearly, Bush was going into Baghdad come hell or high water, and ever-changing justifications be damned. But with so many more important priorities facing us as a nation, it was as if the emergency room triage ignored all the patients who were bleeding to death and committed every resource at the hospital's disposal to treat the guy with the skinned knee.
To make matters worse, Bush decided that this time of war and hugely increased spending would be a dandy time to drain the U.S. treasury, passing the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003. Many experts (including 450 economists and 10 Nobel Laureates) begged Bush not to implement these wildly irresponsible tax cuts for the wealthy. But just like with the war, Bush refused to listen to his detractors, expertise be damned, and bulldozed ahead like the proverbial bull in the cliché china shop. Naturally, the tax cuts failed to spur growth while drastically increasing the budget deficit. They also redistributed tax burden away from the wealthiest among us to the workers among us, thereby shafting the wage earning lower and middle classes.
Once again for the cheap seats: the war and the tax cuts were both extraordinarily expensive, outrageously wasteful and, above all, totally elective. Why did the Republicans choose to spend what they spent? And what exactly did they get for their borrowed trillion? At least I got the bump out of my nose.
Which brings us back to President Obama and his spending. The best doctors in the world have examined the patient—in this case the American economy—and found the poor bastard to be on the verge of collapse. And they all got together and did a differential diagnosis. You would be hard pressed to find a serious economist who hasn't looked at the symptoms and prescribed a massive infusion of government dollars to fight this insidious scourge of a downturn; a downturn which was caused in large part by rampant greed and irresponsible government deregulation; deregulation which started with Reagan and continued under Bush, Clinton and Bush; deregulation which, despite its clear link to the current crisis, has become almost a fetish for so-called conservatives.
Unfortunately, unlike Bush era spending, Dr. Obama doesn't have a choice. He has not inherited a healthy patient. In fact, the last doctor's course of treatment made the guy substantially sicker. Although philosophically, he would much prefer to treat on an outpatient basis, maybe just with chemo and radiation, the last doctor didn't catch the cancer early enough, and now the Cat Scan tells a different story—it calls for a much more invasive surgery than Dr. Obama would like if he had his druthers.
But whereas Dr. Bush might have ignored his colleagues and stubbornly stuck to a treatment—such as more tax cuts for the rich—that was making the patient sicker, Dr. Obama rightly trusts the overwhelming consensus of the most expert "economy docs" the world has to offer. It is assured that he wishes it weren't so—and it is with a heavy heart that he breaks the news to us, the patient's family—but it seems that an invasive procedure, although not without risk and with obviously no guarantees, is the only real chance he has to save the patient's life. And time is of the essence—we've got to keep the cancer from spreading.
So the next time you hear a Republican senator, representative or talking head ranting that Obama is mortgaging your grandchildren's future and irresponsibly spending us into oblivion, just remember: they spent wildly because they wanted to; Obama is reluctantly taking heroic measures to save the dying American economy. Anything less—such as the current Republican idea of sending the patient home and simply making him comfortable—would be gross malpractice.