Budget Cuts

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(HOST) Commentator Madeleine Kunin reflects on budget cuts, the future of social security and the role of the federal government in our lives.

(KUNIN) “Starve the Beast” is the jargon used by conservatives to cut programs that help children, schools, the environment, health care and the poor. The “beast”, of course, is the federal government; starvation is necessary because the deficit has eaten up all the money.

The problem with this rationale is that the budget cuts don’t do much to reduce the deficit. Over five years, these cuts would save about 66 billion per year, reducing the deficit by one-sixth. Meanwhile, further tax breaks for high-income Americans would continue to be expanded.

Program cuts are not about cutting programs to reduce the deficit. Program cuts are about a fundamental policy shift in the role of government itself. Programs such as child care, Head Start and health care for veterans can be cut because they are non-essential, according to Bush policy. The Bush-created deficit is seen, not as a problem to be fixed, but as an opportunity to be siezed to downsize government to bare essentials – namely, the military and national security.

The same argument may be applied to privatizing social security. First offered as a fix to a long-term problem of a shrinking social security pie to be served to a growing social security population, it turns out that the privatization scheme is no fix at all. In fact, it aggravates the financial problems faced by social security and the national deficit.

What privatizing social security would achieve is a major change in government policy. We would move from real social security – a check in the mail you can count on after retirement – to a check which may or may not be there, depending on the ups and downs of the market. Government would not have the responsibility of helping you out in your old age; you would have to take the risk by managing the money yourself.

These policy shifts in the role of government in American society are worthy of debate. It is healthy, from time to time, to reconsider the proper role of government. But let’s be honest about the debate and not pretend that we are cutting social programs to reduce the deficit, or pretend that we’re cutting taxes to help middle-income Americans, or pretend that we’re changing social security to make it solvent – when, in fact, we are doing just the opposite: cutting down the size of government into a starved skeletal structure that will have no strength to uplift, motivate or sustain those who look to it for security in their old age, or opportunity in their youth.

This is Madeleine May Kunin.

Madeleine May Kunin is a former governor of Vermont.

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