hydrangea blossoming

hydrangea blossoming
Hydrangea on the Edge of Blooming

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Fix Isn't In

“We would fix it if we knew what was broken.” (Alicia Suskin Ostriker, The Fix, 2005)

Wouldn’t we just! Some days the sense that something basic is really broken is absolutely overwhelming and, on those days, my concern is not so much just about Point Roberts. This week a document from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities came to my attention. The Center appears to be a perfectly reputable outfit, though inclined toward liberal academic types. The report has a few simple graphs that describe the way the federal budget is spent. I used to laugh at surveys showing that Americans were appalled by how much we spent on foreign aid. When asked approximately what percent of the federal budget was spent this way, they would estimate ten or fifteen percent, and then would say it should be more like five percent. Of course, it was nowhere near five percent, so in fact, they were endorsing more foreign aid rather than less.

But this budget breakdown made me feel as if I had been inducted into the sorority of the foreign aid foes. Start with this: What percentage of the federal budget goes to the benefit of those over the age of 65? 10%, 20%, 40%, more than 40%?

The big picture: 22% for defense including homeland security, 21% for social security, 21% for Medicare/Medicaid/Children’s Health, 9% for debt interest, 9% for the safety net (programs for the poor and unemployed, like food stamps, heating assistance, and unemployment), 6% for federal retirees and veterans’ benefits. Then there’s the rest of it, which would be the last 12% of the total.

Two things strike me most from this (and I’ve had to estimate some of the numbers but have tried to do it conservatively). Social Security: a program primarily for those over 65: 21%; Medicare and Medicaid, the first almost exclusively for those over the age of 65, the second, predominantly for those over 65 (poor elderly health care and nursing home care), maybe 16%; plus another 2 or 3% for federal retiree benefits, available to those over 65, plus maybe one percent of the safety net benefits. That’s 40%+ of the entire federal budget going to old people. I’m one of those old people. This makes absolutely no sense. It should make no sense to Republicans; it should make no sense to Democrats. We old people are terrific. We’re not that terrific. Most of the old people I know are going on cruises and lengthy tours of Europe and South America, eating at nice restaurants; they’ve worked hard and played by the rules and all that, but how is it that they as a group ought to be entitled to 40% of the federal budget?

Now it’s possible that old people indeed ought to be getting the amount of dollars that they are getting, but surely our very biggest priority in this country isn’t old people? Maybe others should be getting even more. What about education? What about kids getting college educations that don’t require giant student loans? When I was in college, school was virtually free if you went to a state institution. But we don’t fund state colleges like that anymore. We charge the students and tell them to take out loans. What about day care for the kids of all the working women who can't afford to stay home with their kids?

The second amazing thing about the budget graphs is what isn’t mentioned. There is a percent or two each for science, medical research, roads and transit, education, and foreign aid (1%), leaving 3% of the budget for everything else. The everything would include the costs of administering the justice system with all its courts and prisons and lawyers; whatever the Interior Department does, which would include the national parks and monuments; the cost of running the Legislative, Judicial, and Executive Branches of government, much of the Agriculture Department’s work other than food foreign aid and food stamps—all those crop subsidies, e.g.; whatever part of the State Department that hasn’t been subsumed into the Defense Department. They do it on 3%? That’s administration!

Big numbers are very hard to comprehend, but percentages I can manage. And none of this makes sense, even without the question of whether we are spending too much on defense. Here’s where I found the numbers. See if you can do better. Something surely seems broken.

No comments: