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To the Editor:

Senator Lamar Alexander’s column in last week’s Advocate laments at length a budget cut proposed by President Obama that impacts the Tennessee National Guard, and he goes on from there to accuse the administration of weakening our national defense in favor of those living the life of Riley on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. It is just this kind of oversimplification and pandering that makes it impossible to reach a rational solution to our ongoing budgetary impasse.

You don’t have to be a fiscal expert to see that Alexander’s flag-waving on behalf of the National Guard, an unarguably deserving entity, is being used to obscure several truths about the state of America’s finances and how they got that way. First, Alexander, like most Republicans, grounds his concerns upon the spectre of our $19 trillion national debt, which can be viewed as the accumulation of years and years of excess expenditures over receipts. Not a pretty picture, to be sure.

But you have to remember, since the senator does not tell you, that Obama and previous presidents (Republicans included) did not incur this debt simply by running out to Dollar General or perhaps Las Vegas and writing way more checks than they should have. All or virtually all of the debt we now owe represents expenditures that have already been made after being authorized and appropriated by the Republicans and Democrats in Congress.

The $19 trillion, moreover, includes such unforeseen expenses as the cost of fighting two-plus wars for the past decade, which for some time were not even included in the annual budgeting process; the $700-to-$800 billion economic stimulus that was required shortly after Obama took office, which Republicans refused to support but which probably saved the global economy from implosion; and the preceding recession that broke out under the George W. Bush administration, whose effects have limited tax receipts and necessitated additional spending from 2009 to now.

Not to belittle its significance, though, but in actuality the national debt is more a symbolic than a monetary calculation, in that it reaffirms our commitment to stand behind our obligations rather than to pay them off all at once or even within a specified timeframe. Few creditors would want to forego the guaranteed flow of interest payments, and the large credits on their balance sheets, by declaring the U.S. in default and setting off a world-wide scramble for whatever would be available. In truth, the United States is the one bank that is truly “too big to fail.”

The foregoing problems have been hugely exacerbated since day one of the Obama administration by Republicans’ pathological dislike of the president (for reasons we won’t go into here), expressed in part by virtually unanimous opposition to everything he has tried to do. There have been constant Republican demands for tax breaks and reductions favoring the very rich, to be balanced either by unspecified savings on “fraud, waste, and abuse” or by drastic, unsustainable cuts in safety-net and human services programs that no responsible president could accept.

As recently as last December, and despite the repeated alarms about the deficit and the national debt, Obama was forced to enter a budget deal that averted another government shutdown and included a few things he wanted, but also provided for $622 billion more in tax breaks, mostly for business, and figured to increase budget deficits by a similar amount over the next ten years. (Obama’s full budget for 2016-17, incorporating at least some of the December deal, was estimated to increase the national debt from $19 to $27.4 trillion during the decade.)
What the recent years’ maneuvering has created, in effect, is a zero-sum game involving four piles of money: debt service, entitlements, defense spending, and everything else, the latter included in the “discretionary” category but largely a lifeline for low- and moderate-income people and state and local governments. The total amount available to spend is limited by our current inequitable tax policy and the mostly Republican/Tea Party/Freedom Caucus outcry that greets any attempt at raising needed revenue. Donald Trump’s and Ted Cruz’ tax proposals call for even more extreme tax cuts with even less credible (or more painful) ways of offsetting them.

Things being how they are, the president has to pick and choose what expenditures are necessary to support, and what other needed items must be trimmed in order to stay within congressional specifications and the limits of reasonableness. Defense expenditures are notoriously difficult to trim, because you can’t just snip one wing off a fighter plane (or the armor off an armored personnel carrier) or reduce the size of military fleet or unit below its optimal fighting strength without “hollowing it out” and eliminating its effectiveness altogether. Senator Alexander cannot be blind to the fact that some military equipment or personnel will have to be eliminated in the budget process, and that neither Tennessee nor any other state can be immune from the effects. That is what his National Guard example illustrates, not that President Obama is determined to “take the country’s defense in exactly the wrong direction.”

If anyone has taken us in the wrong direction, it has been the Congress dominated by Republicans who have grown more and more irresponsible during Obama’s term of office, combined with the travesty of a budgeting process that they have done so much to create. Typifying their approach, Alexander’s solution to the problem he perceives is to raise the money for the National Guard by slashing the “out-of-control” entitlements of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. (And now it is reported that House Republicans are seeking to ensure at least a $140 billion cut in these mandatory programs.)

Clearly, such a “solution” is a recipe for another budget impasse, and is cynically intended as such. Besides, the targeted programs are legacies of Democratic administrations dating back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and have survived until now through Democratic and Republican eras alike. Millions of elderly and vulnerable Americans have depended on them for their daily sustenance and for their very lives. The Lamar Alexander we used to know would never have suggested such an odious attack on these programs that have long helped define us as a nation. We should not believe the impostor who wrote his column for him.

Kingston Springs

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