Sunday, April 10, 2011

Concede what?

Republicans and Democrats have agreed to make concessions to keep the government up and running temporarily until a more permanent resolution can be reached, but the stopgap measure approved will expire on Thursday.

While we're in for a long round of negotiations before both parties can agree on passing a budget through the end of this fiscal year let alone through 2012, it might be helpful to look at how spending has changed over the past 50 years, and then ask: concede what?

At a time when community colleges, and K-12 public schools around the country are being forced to cut programs, as well as endure teacher layoffs and, in some cases even close, let's look at two parts of the federal budget that often get drowned out in the talk about social security and medicare; defense and education.

Half a century ago, in the face of rising tensions in Southeast Asia, President John F. Kennedy allocated nearly $52 billion for defense in his 1962 federal budget which represented only a marginal increase over that of his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower, you'll recall, is the president who warned about the U.S. turning into a "military industrial complex."

To put things in perspective, President Obama has now appropriated ten times the amount JFK did, or $553 billion, in his 2011 budget, an increase of $22 billion over 2010.

Yes, it's also true that in his 1962 budget, then-President Kennedy opted for only slightly more than $1 billion for education, and the Obama administration now allots $77 billion. Yet, while he has increased funding for education by nearly $30 billion since 2010, Mr. Obama has also increased spending on defense almost as much. Is America now in the business of preparing our youngsters to be career soldiers? If so, we're on the right track.

If not, then just how much will Mr. Boehner and his party want to cut from education to preserve the astronomical acceleration of defense spending?

The average annual defense budget for the decade before Bill Clinton took office, a decade that includes Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, was $453 billion. President Clinton is the only commander-in-chief in the past 50 years to reduce defense spending. He did so by more than 15% to $377 billion, per Truth & then along came George W. Bush, and 9/ll.

In George W. Bush's administration, national defense spending rose by a whopping 31% to nearly $500 billion from where it was when Clinton left the White House. And, Mr. Obama has now outdone Mr. Bush. In his 2011 budget, Obama sees Mr. Bush's $500 billion, and raises it by another 10% to $553 billion.

Lest you think that it's mostly Republicans who beef up national defense spending, remember another Democrat who came to the Oval Office by way of the Senate; yes, that Great Society fellow: Lyndon B. Johnson. He increased the defense budget by nearly 10% from where it was under JFK. LBJ was widely reputed to be a consummate deal maker which may be the way he managed to get more funding for the poor, and for medicare by capitulating to the war cartel.

When another friend to the defense lobby, Richard Nixon, came to town, the defense budget rose to $76 billion, but Nixon also increased funding for education to $12 billion from about $1.5 billion under Johnson. In 1984, Ronald Reagan directed that more than $227 billion go for national defense, four times what it was under Johnson.

Interestingly, while Johnson, a Democrat, increased the defense budget by nearly 10%, he only added another $300 million for education, about a 3% increase, so this clearly doesn't play out along party lines. If it did, Mr. Obama would follow Mr. Clinton's lead, and keep defense spending in check, or lower it rather than raise it as he has consistently done.

Historians may someday see Barack Obama as the same kind of deal maker LBJ was. Obama, too, may be acquiescing to the desires of the militaristic wings of both parties as a trade-off to enhance spending on health care legislation, and education. So far, though, we see no evidence of the kind of Great Society reform, and war on poverty, ushered in by the Johnson cum Kennedy administrations. Instead, we see only capitulation to those special interests this president came into office vowing to oppose.

This is not to denigrate Mr. Obama who was the first president to get major health care reform passed; no small accomplishment. He is also the president who reduced taxes for 98% of working Americans, but he's far from waging a war on poverty. One doesn't wage a war on poverty by renewing tax breaks to the upper 2% of the population, even temporarily. One doesn't open the door to higher education by relegating hundreds of billions of dollars to future warriors while, at the same time, turning future students away from our nation's community colleges.

We went from LBJ's war on poverty to just plain war.

If those who want to lower the deficit, and those who tout "fiscal responsibility," think that the national debt is this country's biggest liability and the gravest threat to future generations, they're wrong. The worst thing we can leave behind future Americans is a world constantly at war, and one in which the benefits of the few come at the expense of the many.

Again, over the past 50 years, defense spending has steadily skyrocketed. Instead of making concessions, maybe we should start asking not where social security will be by 2076, but where defense will be by 2076.

The president's opponents in Congress have worked sedulously to discredit him from the start which represents a seismic shift from the treatment Lyndon Johnson got. Remember, Johnson was a white southerner.

Mr. Obama instead has been forced to resort to tactics one would mostly expect from a used car salesman who mark up the price of the vehicle knowing full well that it will only depreciate during the course of the transaction. This is not a paradigm that works for our educational system.

Even with the $76 billion or more this administration has slated for the Department of Education, public schools in our inner cities don't come close to offering the same kind of access to state of the art technology, and quality educators, that one typically associates with middle class suburban schools.

Before agreeing to any more concessions, the president and Congress must ask, concede what? .

Rest assured, when Congress finds itself up against the wall in another eleventh hour negotiation, they will want to keep their hands off the political third rail of social security and medicare and instead opt to take another bite out of education. This is what states like California have done in a pinch, so it would come as no surprise if the feds do it.

But, remember, not only is the president up for reelection, but many members of Congress will be campaigning for reelection in 2012, too. We must not stand by and allow a trend to continue about which Dwight Eisenhower warned more than half a century ago. We must not allow war to become this country's main export.