Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Sequester, hurray!

Make no mistake, Republicans are thrilled with the sequester.  And no, it has little to do with standing up to the President.  Republicans are happy because, above all else, they want to shrink government and what better way than to starve it of the necessary funds.  Republicans are happy, but they are playing a dangerous and, in my view, very heartless game.  In doing so, they are also making a huge political gamble. 

It's a dangerous game because the economy remains fragile and, like it or not, government spending, direct and indirect, has a meaningful impact on our national well-being.  The loss of public sector jobs — local, state and federal — has had a measurable impact on unemployment and has held back the recovery.  While we have seen steady, albeit modest, private sector job growth, public sector jobs continue to fall.  This continuing contraction and its ripple effect, particularly at the local level, has cut into the recovery.  Just ask your neighborhood shopkeeper, car dealer or real estate agent. It's a heartless game because the people who will be most hurt are again those with the least, a group that (assuming they have a job) is already suffering from wage stagnation. 

It's a political gamble because unless they can convince voters that Obama and Democrats are mostly to blame, Republicans may well sustain further election losses, this time in the Congress and at the state and local level.  Let's remember that premature austerity — starving governments of money — has thrown much of Europe back into recession and with it has produced significant voter backlash.  The recent vote in Italy is just one example.  American office holders may well experience a similar backlash.

I started this post with the assertion that Republicans like the sequester.  For years, and despite all their disagreements, there wasn't that much of a difference between the political parties.  Yes, the GOP of the twentieth century tended to be more conservative, the Democrats more liberal.  But each party had a significant contingent of members and office holders that didn't quite fit into a neat ideological mode.  There were a substantial number of progressive Republicans (e.g. Rockefeller Republicans) as there were conservative Democrats (from an Eastland in the South to a Scoop Jackson in the West).  That broader in-party ideological mix didn't insure compromise and civility, but it sure helped.

Today — and some would argue it's a good thing — differences in ideology between the parties are in much sharper focus.  Perhaps it's too simplistic to reduce it to big government verses small government, but not by much.  Republicans have to admit, though unhappily, that some government is necessary.  Conversely, Democrats have to admit that government can't do everything and that realistically there are limits on what we can afford.  Neither side is really happy about it the status quo and try hard to limit compromises on "principle". Whether on economic or social issues, today's party partisans are far more unified and of a single mind than was the case in earlier years.  So, far from being at times indistinguishable, the two major parties have worldviews that are often polar opposite, something that drives both their rhetoric and actions.  The divide is real and we haven't figured out how to negotiate well in this black and white ideological environment — hence, dysfunctional governance.

Nearly seven years ago, after spending most of my adult life in New York, I relocated to the lovely university town Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  When I arrived, the state had a Democratic governor and legislature.  In 2008 it went for Obama.  Today, that situation has reversed.  Republicans have taken full control and Romney edged out a win here in November.  Former Charlotte Mayor and energy executive Pat McCrory was elected governor in November.  If you want to understand how profound a change from Democratic to Republican rule can be these days, look no further than North Carolina.

Last spring, and despite still having a sitting Democrat governor, the now Republican controlled legislature voted to put a constitutional amendment banning same-sex "domestic legal unions" — marriage or any other — before the electorate.  That vote was intentionally set for the Spring presidential primary, where no Democratic contest (even on the state level) was expected.  Primaries draw only half as many voters as general elections and the voters, regardless of party, tend to me more ideological the party faithful.  In the present environment especially, the scheduling clearly favored conservative, still in the midst of an unresolved presidential contest.  The marriage amendment to the State's Constitution passed, supported by what amounted to 20% of the electorate.

Fast forward to the New Year with McCrory in now place.  At this moment the legislature is seeking to remove independent members of the State's principal regulatory commissions allowing the governor to appoint members who are in sync with his policies.  This includes the utility commission that overseas his long-term employer, Duke Energy.  There is serious talk about major reductions in, perhaps the total elimination of, the state income tax, replaced by an increase in the regressive sales tax.  The governor and legislature have turned down the increased Medicaid offered under the Affordable Healthcare Act, robbing coverage for more than half a million of our currently uninsured fellow citizens.  The expansion would have been funded entirely by the federal government in the first three years and at least 90% thereafter.  Concurrently, they are in the process of both limiting and reducing unemployment benefits.

North Carolina is known for one of the nation's most respected and best public higher education systems.  The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill is the country's second oldest (1789) and ranks fifth among public universities — thirtieth among all colleges.  Governor McCrory thinks that the State's schools should be focused on jobs.  In a radio interview with former Education Secretary Bill Bennett, the Governor proclaimed, "...I’m going to adjust my education curriculum to what business and commerce needs to get our kids jobs."  Notice he calls it "my" education curriculum as if he owns and runs the schools. 

He then went on to say, “If you want to take gender studies that's fine.  Go to a private school, and take it.  But I don't want to subsidize that if that's not going to get someone a job."  By the way, UNC's annual tuition is $7,600 vs. $40,000 plus for private institutions like neighboring Duke.  I guess citizens with limited funds should only consider vocational training for their children.  Ah, the good old days.  And speaking of former times (the one's he apparently wants to restore), remember when Stanford Law grad Sandra Day O'Conner and women like her were told they could only be secretaries in law firms.  It's informative that the governor used gender studies as his example of wrongheaded education, part I guess of that Republican attempt to get women into their fold.  Good luck with that. 

McCrory and Bennett also agreed the state shouldn't be subsidizing philosophy PhDs, a sentiment that probably will go down well with my son Jesse's former colleagues here in Chapel Hill which currently has one of the country's top philosophy departments.  The UNC faculty has already endured salary freezes and cuts, and is losing some of its younger members who are deeply concerned about their future prospects here.  If all that weren't enough, McCrory is in the process of removing the word "education" from the state lottery so that it can support technical school (I guess that's not education).

Add to what's happening here in North Carolina to what we've seen in Wisconsin and Florida along with what's afoot in Washington and you get the picture.  It all adds up to a pretty grim and consistent end point. Integral to it is starving government budgets, particularly the funds for social programing, which includes teaching the humanities.  The last thing these people want is a well-rounded, well educated, and healthy public.  Republicans who love the sequester are making a calculation that an all too complacent public may complain a little in the short term but eventually go along.  Inertia is the American way, they assume, and that's their ultimate win, win.  They may be right, but I don't think so.  We'll soon know.

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