BPD Update Online, Spring 2003
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by Ralph Holcomb

The Budget Mess

There is precious little good economic news in the near of middle future. The war in Iraq will further postpone economic recovery. Budget surpluses, now a distant memory, will not appear again for a long, long time. It's no longer morning in America for state, county and municipal employees (including firefighters and police officers) laid off to pay for tax cuts that reward super rich political contributors. This is familiar territory, and we know what we must do as social work educators. Here's what I said at a recent student forum on the topic.

Cutting taxes got us into this mess, and new taxes will get us out. This isn't 100% true, but it is true enough. The new federalism means the ascendancy of believers in "The government that governs least governs best," and "Government is not the answer; government is the problem." Enthusiastic conservatives, aided by their liberal counterparts, wrote in permanent tax cuts and doled out rebates during the late 1990s when revenue was plentiful. Now they want to cut taxes again because times are hard. We must remind politicians and voters that it's only fair for those of us who received tax cuts and rebates during good times to help pay for the rewards we reaped during the late 1990s.

It's easier to elect candidates who agree with you than change the minds of elected officials who disagree with you. Let's ignore the fact that a majority of voters did recently elect a president with less conservative views. In fact, the political right has been very effective over the last quarter century in reversing public opinion and judicial policy on critical social welfare issues. Conservative ideologues on federal court benches will continue to shape policy for a generation or more (according to the New York Times, Bush's favorite Supreme Court justice is Clarence Thomas). We need to fight for social equity around budget issues today, and we also need to work toward helping those who agree with us to win local and national elections two years from now.

This is not just a budget crisis; it's a values crisis. Our strongest position is talking up traditional American values about how workers, families, and the disabled should be treated. I assure you the right wing defines the world as a titanic conflict of values. Economist Paul Krugman in his October 20, 2002 New York Times Magazine cover article claims the present accumulation of wealth into the hands of the super rich is the result of a change in social norms as well as government policy. He goes on to label the period of the 1930s through the 1960s an economic anomaly between gilded ages. It was a time of government regulation of prices and wages followed by two decades of marketplace norms that prohibited the unalloyed greed we now see (remember Eisenhower's now-quaint warning about the rise of the military-industrial complex?). As the economy slips into its fourth year of stagnation we need to get the simple message out that it's not fair the rich get richer while the working people who make this country great can't get ahead.

Hard times have only begun to hit the middle class. We need to be ready when middle-class Americans really feel the pinch. The American middle is just awakening from the party of the late 1990s and realizing they're the ones who got the bill. As soccer moms try to make sense of their social and economic crisis, we need to be there to remind them the super rich are laughing up their sleeves. When we successfully motivate the suburbs to align their interests with those of the working poor, we strike at the heart of the ultra-right power base.

Every day we stand in classrooms across the country explaining complicated social phenomena, educating and motivating our undergraduates. Our present course is clear: we must hold classroom dialogues on today's budget mess at the state and national levels, and use university and community forums to express of our views and model social action for our students.

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BPD Update Online, Volume 25, No. 2, Spring 2003

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