As a humble educator (at least in the material sense, for those of you who have concluded that I'm cocky as all hell) there are many things I can't afford. I am not in poverty, of course, but I consider my lifestyle to be modest. A twelve year old car, a rental ranch in the undergraduate part of town, and so on.

I bring this up only to point out that I can't afford things like luxury cars, expensive vacations overseas, designer clothes, yadda yadda yadda.

And I point that out only to poke tons of holes in my logic. You see, I totally could afford a BMW or a month in a Tuscan villa if I was willing to make a ton of sacrifices. I could sell every single object of value that I own and, combined with my retirement savings, blow the proceeds on an epic vacation. I could move into a punk house and share the rent with 25 other people, redirecting what I currently pay in rent toward monthly BMW payments. Or I could do as many people do and borrow money to pay for these splurges. So the statement "I can't afford ____" is very rarely accurate. It would not be a good idea for me to do any of the things I suggested here. It's clearly not impossible, however.

To use somewhat less ridiculous examples, everything I afford represents a choice. I like to collect commemorative coins. They are not useful, but I choose to buy them on occasion. Each one represents something else I chose to forgo. It wouldn't be accurate for me to say "I can't afford $300 shoes!" In reality, I chose to spend the money on something else because I am lucky enough to have some disposable income each month.

OK. The boring part is over. Here's the point.

The Republican primaries – as well as the 2010 elections – have been lousy with declarative statements about what the United States cannot afford. To hear the candidates tell it, there is a laundry list of unaffordable items. Some are currently in the budget and some are merely proposals. The bottom line is clear, though: we just can't afford _____. Health care reform. Social Security. Medicare. Public education. Stimulus spending. Physical infrastructure. Public employees. The space program. Environmentally friendly technologies. These and more are just too expensive.

That disingenuous rhetoric pours from Romney, Gingrich, Santorum (increasingly), and every dour-faced old Senator who shoves his mug into a news camera. Of all the "lies" we talk about in the context of politics and especially in campaigns, this is the biggest and most pervasive. We can afford whatever we want. We sent a bunch of goddamn rockets to the moon just to give the Soviet Union a big middle finger. We spend literal trillions on our defense establishment.

We subsidize all kinds of favored industries at the expense of others. And the household/personal budget is a poor analogy here, as the government has tools at its disposal that radically alter the equation. It can raise taxes. It can print more money (see: World War II). It can reallocate what it currently spends. It can sell assets (like gold reserves). It can borrow.

I'm not arguing that any of those are or are not wise. That depends on context and one's risk tolerance. Printing money, for example, is probably not a good way to address the problem. The point is that we could afford any of the things we are told we cannot afford. We simply choose not to. Candidates who say "America cannot afford…" mean "This is not on my list of priorities." The history of this country, particularly throughout the Depression and Second World War, have proven that we can "afford" essentially anything we want. The question is, are we willing to make the necessary sacrifices? For the military and for corporate largesse, yes. The opportunity costs of those priorities are immense. For anything else, therefore, the answer is no. We say we can't afford them because that sounds prettier than the truth, which is that they simply aren't important to us.

29 thoughts on “THE POSSIBLE”

  • I am extremely bothered by this as well. There is a very real sense in which the government can't afford things – the federal government is and has been spending more than it takes in for most of my life, as an example. But viewed from the national perspective (say the GDP rather than government revenue), we're richer than ever. And, of course, 0% deficits and debt are probably not ideal either.

    Jeebus, how do these people who go around talking about how our country is the awesomest thing to ever occur throughout time and space also claim we're on the verge of becoming Greece? We can't afford a few % of GDP to sure up Social Security? Or, in my state, 20 f'in million per year for high speed rail with the remainder getting picked up by federal taxpayers?

    At some level, the media doesn't call them on it. But even when they do, conservative supporters double down on the government is the reason our awesomest country ever is crumbling into the shitter. Ugh.

  • freeportguy says:

    "We spend literal trillions on our defense establishment. We subsidize all kinds of favored industries at the expense of others."

    …and the GOP TOTALLY refuses any cuts to military spendings AND more tax cuts to favored industries, including those making billions in profits. Sky is the limit when it comes down to what we can apparently afford there!

    Question: who exactly is the GOP working for in all this, if not military contractors/suppliers and wealthy corporations?

  • Calming Influence says:

    "Printing money, for example, is probably not a good way to address the problem."

    Printing money is precisely the good way to address the problem right now. If I'm worried about the family budget and trying to come up with ways to balance the budget, the one tool I DON'T have is the ability to print money. That would be nuts, because if everybody in the economy could do that, the economy would become meaningless. But if you are THE ECONOMY, printing more money puts more money in circulation, in people's pockets, in store owner's tills, and eventually in wage earner's pockets. You want to keep an eye on inflation, but right now interest rates are at record lows.

    This "economy as family kitchen table problem" is a huge pile of bullshite.

  • middle seaman says:

    Ages ago I served in a military. They asked us to do quiet difficult things. Cannot was out of the dictionary. It was replaced with I don't want to.

    They don't want to.

  • No money to educate kids or improve the health of the citizenry, but plenty to invade Iran, and pay Wall St to incarcerate people.

    @Middle: my limited knowledge of the military has me understand that if you tell an officer "I don't want to…" to an order, there are some very serious legal consequences.

  • It all makes sense once you realize that it's NOT about balancing the budget – it's about getting rid of programs that Republicans don't like.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    Somewhere between JFK and Reagan's 2nd term, we from from a "CAN DO!" nation, to a "Nope, we can't do that…"

    Say what you will about Nixon's, Reagan's, "Papa Doc" Bush's, and "Baby Doc" Bush's, Republicans, but they could at least smile at you, and sound like they cared, as they stuck the shiv into you as they mugged you.

    They all had some positive messages.

    They current crop of candidates latched onto the Teabagger's, 'We want out country back!' cry, and have been using that as their basic message.
    The problem is, over 50% have seen what they mean by that – blatant voter suppression of the black, brown, and young, and outright misogyny.
    Over 50% of the people don't want the country 'going back.' It took them too long just to get to the precarious spot where they are right now.

    And the public is seeing that we have endless amounts of money to spend on wars and occupations, and tax breaks for the top 1% – but nothing to help the lives of the struggling 99$.

    The Republicans may well lose in 2012, because they are the party of dour pessimism. Voters prefer sunnier messages about the future.

    And then, the sh*t's really going to hit the fan. The lesson, if they do lose, will be that they weren't Conservative enough – and they'll turn even more reactionary.
    And if they eke out even the smallest of victories, they will take that as a mandate for further racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and misogyny.

    We may be at a tipping point in this country.
    It may well take a 2nd Civil War, before anything's settled. Or, some sort of Revolution.
    Either or both are possible – and either or both will be very, very ugly.

  • You see, conservatism can never fail, it can only be failed.

    If they win it proves they were right, if they lose it proves they weren't right enough. The answer is always further to the right.

  • Entomologista says:

    Oh, they are cutting military spending – on the backs of soldiers. They've cut combat zone pay to $7.50/day instead of doing it on a monthly basis. They don't want soldiers to get a full month of combat pay if they are only in a combat zone for a week. There are also civilian contractor cuts and budget cuts to low priority things like vaccine research.

  • @major kong et al

    I think one of the reasons we (in this Left/Right paradigm) are at an impasse is that most everything y'all said seems to apply to the Left from the Right's perspective….everything!

    You know, like Gorbachev saying the exact thing almost to a quote about Communism/Socialism not really failing in the USSR, but just not having the right people run it or it being given a fair chance.

    And while we are distracted w/ this argument…??


  • Candidates who say "America cannot afford…" mean "This is not on my list of priorities."

    Yeah, that's it, I think. And the reason it's a problem for you (and, to a lesser extent, me), is because so many supporters don't realize this distinction.

    I've found, though, that I'm a lot happier when I don't get upset about how stupid the masses are. To the extent that I can just accept that there are lots of dumb people out there, I'm better off (especially if I recognize that I'm incapable of making a significant change to that state.)

  • mining city guy says:

    I am generally a lurker here but I wanted to post a comment that I completely agree with Calming Influence. There is nothing wrong with printing more money as long as you keep your eye on inflation. And right now inflation isn't a problem with demand being depressed and so many people being unemployed or underemployed in jobs that don't pay very much.

  • On a brighter note, somewhere in Connecticut a geezer is taunting his Grandchildren thusly: "I made my first million when the tax rate was 90%, think you could do that, you snivelling ghits?"

  • @bb:
    Not sure how you got from the American left to Gorbachev without a few extra moves.

    The Gipper and Chimpy McFlightsuit showed us exactly how the Republican party feels about "spending."

  • True, true…but we are still talking about things from the perspective of a little kid who sees a parent's paycheck and thinks, JEEZ, Dad, if you make THAT kind of money, why don't I have a pony? WE COULD ALL HAVE PONIES!

    Collectible coins are nice. They don't take up much room, and require no special environment. Ponies consume a lot of food, require professional maintenance and health care, and create a lot of dung that needs to be excavated daily. Being able to BUY a pony doesn't mean you can afford to KEEP a pony.

    That's what it means to be able to afford something. Beggars mounted run their horses to death.

    The ideal of the simplistically-titled "small government" argument is that it doesn't think everyone should have to pay for my sister's horse habit, if you'll pardon the phrase. The weakness is that its proponents seem to think that basic needs such as food, medicine, and clean water are frivolous expenditures.

    Nor does it acknowledge that government has a purpose, and part of that purpose is administering those things that can't be accomplished well on a state-by-state basis, from standard weights and measures to our military to our postal service.

    It could also easily support non-profit healthcare for all, a solid infrastructure, a lean-but-mean space program, meaningful medical and scientific research, and a strong military (rather than our current weak military and enormous funding of war profiteers.) I don't believe that these things are pretty ponies, whose purpose is strictly recreational. Like maintenance on your house, these things will make our nation stronger and last longer.

  • It's not that these things are not important to us.

    It is that these things – and I'll use your list: {Health care reform. Social Security. Medicare. Public education. Stimulus spending. Physical infrastructure. Public employees. The space program. Environmentally friendly technologies} – are actively opposed by a rich, powerful elite minority who have convinced the stupid (tea party) and ignorant (everyone else with net worth under $5 million who votes for any Republican, anywhere, ever) that these things are socialist, or worse yet, Muslim.

    The greatest Debt to GDP ratio we had in the 20th century was right at the ass end of WW II. So what did we do then: the GI Bill, the interstate highway system, eventually, the Great Socity, and – oh yeah – the space program.

    We could have had universal health care then, too, but Harry S. Truman's Rethug congress killed it. So health insurance became part of employment benefits to lure workers into the expanding economy.

    Sad story.


  • bb –

    Classic false equivalence. Provide a few examples of budget cuts proposed by the left that the right opposes. Military pork does not count.

    "The right's perspective" is what, exactly?

    "You know, like Gorbachev saying the exact thing almost to a quote . . ."

    This time you have hit on a real equivalence, though rather by accident I fear. What is in play in your example is not a right-left dichotomy, but an apt comparison of modern Amurcan right-wingery and Soviet style communism – two absolutist views of the world in which ideology trumps reality every time, and the actual effects on the lives of real people matter not at all.

    You have to realize that in the latter days of the USSR, it was the the old men on the politburo who were the conservatives. The political system is irrelevant, it's close-minded conservatism that counts. Their close counterparts in he U.S. were people like Jesse Helms, not anyone on the left.

    Now, if you're comparing what passes for "the left" in our country today with Communism, that is simply false on every conceivable level.


  • @bb

    Sorry, but I fail to see the equivalency. Our "leftist" President has been maintaining the Bush tax cuts and threatening to go to war with Iran.

    It's like when Clinton was in office and was supposedly the leftest lefty that ever burned a flag – except when the GOP was complaining that "He's stealing our issues!"

    A watered-down, corporate-friendly health care reform (sort of) bill is hardly Karl Marx the sequel.

  • @Jzb

    Does the surge in Iraq count as military pork?

    Senators Obama and Reid et al Ds were against spending the money (cuts) and committing the troops – the Rs were for it (oppose).

    I never meant to equate the Amurcan Left with full blown Communism. This was the general Left/Right thing I was talking about.

    So Jesse and Leonid are in Hell together swapping stories…

    @major kong

    The Affordable Care Act is the Left's favorite whipping boy. Our Pres has given a corporate wet kiss to the insurance companies short term.

    Go back and look at the video from about 2003 when Mr O was talking to his union buds. He made it vary clear that he has always been for a single payer health care system (SPHS)…always.

    He said at that time that the system would have to be changed from what we have now (2003) to a SPHS over about a 10 year period. The clock started in 2009.

    By about mid-teens there won't be insurance companies in that biz any more. No one in the middle will able to afford it as individuals any more (my premiums have gone up 36% in the last couple years) and companies will all ditch their plans and pay the fines.

    We will all be crying out for government insurance long before then. First come the exchanges that you wanted in the ACA and then soon we will have single payer.

    I think that was the plan all along, but the Ds screwed up the fast track, not the Rs.


  • anotherbozo says:

    Late to the party again today. But BRAVO Ed, for another single-minded post that hit it out of the park. Nobody coulda made the point more strongly.

    And God knows we need strong. Now if the milquetoast Dems would only read this stuff.

  • Another beauty of a post, Ed.

    Too bad the dems have done nothing but me-too this Reaganite bullshit right up to our current warmonger/austerityian in chief (who simply threw away possibly the greatest and last opportunity to stomp its vile, self-destroyed corpse to shards in favor of doing everything possible to assist its zombie resurrection).

    Really lovely that our choice anymore amounts to corporate fascism/bankster rape/endless war abroad/relentless impoverishment at home vs. the same thing but with extra Taliban.

  • the right always compares the Left to Communism/Socialism and refuses to see America is now a Fascist Rightwing Country.

    amazing and proof of a total waste of time when it comes to the Right.

    and BB said it all began in 2009! Classic Right wing BS as always.

    well, the truth is always there to stare us in the face, choosing the truth is not in the Right's interest and never has been.

    that old false equivalency, the left is not the same as the right. our chaices for a Society where people are worthy just because they exist. and not the Right wing fascism of unless you "produce" you are worth-less.

    i really hope we wind up with a decisive conclusion to the hate and viciousness that is the Right. This intolerance for the "Other" is what has led us to this point in time. this hate visited upon the "Lessers" is not Christian at all. and i hate Religion, escpecially the "KIND" practiced here in America and the South. of me against you!

    my nephew is in the military and tells me they do the same drill that costs $800,000. every month. every months for practice. the only reason for the Right is the MIlitary and that is enough to be "Righteous and Pure" in a Republican WAY.

    sick and tired of the hate from teh Right and their murder upon the Earth and it's inhabitants.

    being frugal is not something that Republicans do or encourage, not since FDR saved capitalism from the Rich and their Rightwing owners. maybe this time the fall of America will lead to something good. right now the Hate of the Rich for the "other" is leading us down the road to a destroyed planet. which can only be saved by their "GOD", which we NON Believers "MUST" accept to be American nowadays.

    having such crap forced upon non believers is one good reason i hope America falls apart or changes in to the America it was before the Right took over the South and America with it.

    the EVIL that is REpublicanism started with Republicans and their unwillingness to live and let live. aka abortion, contraception, gays, blacks, uppity women and all those "anti American" Ideas the Reagan Revolution refused to accept as being HUMAN and American.

    you reap what you sow. Right wingers don't care about anything but getting thier own way, and Fuck you otherwise.

    United we stood and now Divided,thanks to the Republicans, we have fallen far below. as Lee Greenwood says, at Least i know i am American.

    stupid asses, indeed!

  • @Bernard

    If you can get off the hate train for five, you might work on that comprehensive reading thing…


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