U.S. Status and Recovery Can't Be Hostage

In the last few weeks something amazing happened: the U.S. economy and its international credit rating were taken hostage by a Republican Party that has itself been high-jacked by extremists. We can't let them get away with it.

President Obama needs to show his leadership and political spine by refusing to pay ransom for preserving our nation's solid international credit rating. He can, and must, use the Constitution to prevent this kind of political blackmail. To force massive cuts in public programs and a freeze on taxes for the super-rich as the price for not reneging on the public debt of the United States is not only unconscionable, it is unconstitutional. Section 4 of the 14th amendment explicitly states that public debts, once duly authorized by law, "shall not be questioned."

Our president must not let the threat of causing a default on our nation's public obligations force draconian cuts in social programs -- not only because the damage to our nation would be so high, but because this kind of extortionist precedent can't be set if we are to retain any semblance of political sanity and morality.

Certainly, after the president has taken this firm stand against political blackmail, the discussion about long-term spending and taxation must be resumed. But when it is, it must be a well-grounded discussion about what in reality will, or will not, lead to social and economic health. This requires setting a number of things straight:

  1. Our deficit is the result of a combination of factors that have nothing to do with so-called entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, or with funding to feed hungry children, educate our youth, or update our transportation systems. Our deficit is due to a combination of very different factors -- from the huge costs of our unnecessary war in Iraq and deregulation to the massive tax cuts that radically reduced what the super-rich paid during the Reagan years, cuts that did not bring more jobs or a better life for most Americans.
  2. Social Security, which is not even close to bankruptcy, is actually funded by a form of public insurance that workers pay into as a kind of pension for their old age. The same is the case for Medicare, which keeps millions of our elderly (including those who've signed on to the "cut government spending" bandwagon) from bankruptcy, destitution, and earlier death.
  3. We are not Greece. We are the richest nation in the world, and it is not our deficit but Republican recklessness that endangers our international economic standing.
  4. Ironically, Republicans are putting at severe risk the very rich they claim to protect, whose holdings will be traumatically affected should our nation default on its U.S. bond and other obligations.
  5. What counts is not the size of our government(after all we are a very large nation, which requires a large government), but our spending priorities -- and these priorities must be re-examined so our nation can effectively meet the unprecedented economic and environmental challenges we face.

There is something else that is basic: We must -- in both our short term and long term economic planning -- take into account scientific findings. For example, neuroscience shows that the kind of care and education children receive affects the development of their brains, and ultimately the competence, ingenuity, and resilience of what economists call our nation's human capital.

We are now in a post-industrial knowledge/service global economy, and we as a nation have already dramatically fallen behind all other developed nations in our investment in our human capital. So, besides being catastrophic for millions of Americans, the cuts in childcare, education, healthcare, and other social services being demanded by Republicans will be disastrous for our national competiveness.

Remember, it was Republican President Lincoln who established the National Academies of Sciences to promote scientific principles to guide our national policies. And the passing of First Lady Betty Ford is a potent recent reminder of how far the party has strayed from its roots in support of a thriving middle class and the protection of the most vulnerable among us: women, children, the elderly, and minorities. These are basic American principles, and we cannot abandon them.

We urgently need a reframing of our political and economic discourse, one that puts caring for our people at the center of our national agenda -- and it is up to us to demand this from politicians of both parties.