Guesses at What Might Be the Appropriate Symbolism

Most men dread Valentine’s Day – there’s no winning. Buy something extravagant for her and you risk being told you don’t care – you’re just spending a lot of money to cover up that you’re lousy at the personal and meaningful. You can’t buy romance. You can’t throw dollars at something and call that love. You don’t care about her, really. But do something personal and meaningful – write a poem or whatever – and you’ll be told you’re a cheap bastard and you just don’t care about her – that cost you nothing, after all. It’s a great day for women. They can play it either way and make the man feel like a fool. And chocolates are particularly dangerous. That’s so lazy and unimaginative, and are you trying to make her fat? It’s probably best to stick with roses – if you grow them yourself, and it’s a new hybrid you’ve bred yourself and named after her – if the name of this new rose, her name, is officially registered now. Otherwise forget it. And there are spectacularly bad ideas – like the GPS lingerie that goes for about eight hundred dollars. That’s cyber-stalking. You obviously don’t trust her, and of course she’ll go commando when you’re not around just to spite you. And the anatomically correct plush beating heart is just gross, unless you’re dating someone from the coroner’s office who loves her work doing autopsies. It takes all kinds.

But pleasing people is always a puzzle. What people say they want isn’t what they want – it’s only what they say they want. And why they say they want this or that is seldom anything carefully thought-out. There’s a lot of whim involved. And politicians know this better than anyone else. Let’s start a war with those bad guys over there and fix things once and for all – but don’t send my kid. Let’s have the best schools in the world, but don’t raise my taxes. And stop regulating everything, but keep my food and water safe, and make sure those toys from China aren’t full of lead. And don’t prop up failing industries, but keep my job at GM safe. And keep your government hands off my Medicare. For politicians every day is Valentine’s Day. There’s no winning.

And this Valentine’s Day we get Obama’s Valentine’s gift to America, the new budget:

President Obama is poised to release his budget plan for next year, but don’t expect it to make many Americans happy – even though the White House tells ABC News that it will cut the deficit more than $1 trillion over the next decade.

In a move that may be aimed at outflanking Republicans, the president will propose some surprisingly deep cuts. Then the President would use those savings to pay for programs he says he believes will help improve the economy.

“My budget freezes annual domestic spending for the next five years – even on programs I care deeply about,” Obama said Saturday during his weekly address.

Hey, that’s what people want. They want the government to stop spending so damned much. Everyone says so, although that’s not exactly carefully thought-out. It’s just a general feeling. Or we’re told that’s the general feeling. It just sounds like a good idea. And here’s the president, going all out for you folks, cutting what he really cares about. Is that Valentine’s Day love or what?

But of course the Republicans say they aren’t buying it:

“We’re broke. What’s really dangerous is if we continue to do nothing and allow the status quo to stay in place,” House Speaker John Boehner said today on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “When are we going to get serious about cutting spending?”

And thus the argument comes down to the Republicans saying that Obama isn’t really serious and Obama saying look, see, I really am serious. And it seems that a White House official confirmed to ABC News that the president’s 2012 budget will include cuts to clean water programs, home heating assistance, and Pell grants that help students pay for college. See – he’ll hit the poor where it really hurts. Isn’t that what the Republicans want? They are, after all, always talking about those parasites, those who take and do not contribute. This will screw them good, and isn’t that the point?

Maybe Obama is messing with their heads and forcing them to reveal themselves as mean callous bastards, or maybe he’s serious. It’s hard to tell. But it comes down to this:

“You are going to have progressives saying you are cutting all these important programs that really help people, conservatives saying you are not cutting nearly enough, and deficit hawks saying this doesn’t do nearly enough to fix the overall budget situation,” says Maya MacGuineas of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a non-partisan group.

No one wins – no one is happy – and Obama gets to say he plans to use the savings from those cuts to pay for that which will help stabilize the economy. And that’s where the Republicans will go ballistic – more money for high speed rail, new education programs and infrastructure improvements, including extending the broadband access to rural areas. They’ll have none of that:

“Look, if he is talking about coming and having new spending, so-called investments, that is not where we are going,” Republican budget chair Rep. Paul Ryan said on “Fox News Sunday.”

There will be no investing in the future, period. And this new budget – two thirds budget cuts, one third tax increases, and going with the Gates plan at the Pentagon to slow defense spending by seventy-eight billion dollars over the next five years – will not fly. And of course Obama’s Democratic base will hate it too. And of course it’s nonsense anyway, an argument over a fraction of the problem:

Only 15 percent of the budget is discretionary funding. A large portion of the rest is spent on entitlements: Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

“What we are witnessing is a political dance,” MacGuineas says. “The budget we will see released tomorrow will probably bring the deficit down in the short run. It won’t do anything to bring it down in the long run, and that means all this work that we will go through now is not going to fix the overall situation unless they focus on entitlement reform.”

Neither the White House, nor Republicans have offered concrete entitlement reform proposals.

Of course not – and no one takes Valentine’s Day gifts seriously anyway. Those are always guesses at what might be the appropriate symbolism, but never is.

And Steve Benen in this item points out that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has been thinking that the Republicans have got it all wrong. The DCCC is working under the assumption that spending cuts aren’t nearly as popular as Republicans might think. So they launched an ad campaign – Benen discusses it here – targeting nineteen Republican House incumbents, those representing districts won by President Obama in 2008 – and the ads hit them hard for their support for a spending-cut plan that would “cut education” and “cut science and technology research” – all of which would in turn cost jobs.

And that worked:

One House Republican distanced himself from conservatives in his own party on the heels of ads by Democrats targeting him on education spending.

Freshman Rep. Robert Hurt (R-Va.) said he didn’t necessarily support all of the cuts proposed by the leadership of the Republican Study Committee (RSC)… “Because I’m a member of that committee, somehow that means that I want to cut education by 40 percent or something like that?” Hurt told a local ABC affiliate. “I mean, it’s just totally made up out of whole cloth. I don’t know where it’s coming from.”

But Benen calls him out:

Well, it’s really not that tough to figure out. Hurt joined the Republican Study Committee, and the Republican Study Committee released a budget plan. The GOP proposal – which Hurt made no effort to denounce or distance himself from – would require massive cuts to practically every area of public life, including education. It’s not made up of whole cloth; it’s just the plan presented by the Republican Study Committee that Hurt joined.

Nothing seems to be carefully thought-out here:

Isn’t Hurt’s response the opposite of what he’s supposed to say? As an insurgent, far-right House Republican, I was under the impression he’s supposed to say, “You’re darn right I’m going to slash spending. That’s what voters want, right?”

Except that’s not his message at all. On the contrary, the congressman is effectively arguing, “What Republican Study Committee plan? I had nothing to do with that.”

As Benen notes, Americans “tend to like the idea of slashing spending, right up until they’re asked about specific areas of the budget” – but then they like their spending just fine. So the ads worked.

And now things have escalated. There was only an outline released by the Republican Study Committee, which hadn’t been endorsed by the House leadership. But now that House leadership has presented the details of their plan – and it’s not pretty. Paul Krugman noted the cuts that jumped out at him – deep reductions in aid for pregnant women and women with young children, NOAA, NASA, energy efficiency programs, scientific research, counter-proliferation, FEMA, environmental protections, community health centers, and Centers for Disease Control. The current Republican philosophy was the reverse of the Bill Clinton vamping anthem – “Don’t start thinking about tomorrow.”

Jonathan Cohn put it this way – “Now we know what life will be like if the House Republicans get their way: Financial aid for college will decline, food-borne illness will spread more easily, Head Start programs will shrink, and Big Bird might be out of business.”

It’s in the details:

About 8 million college students would see their Pell Grants fall by about 15 percent, with the maximum grants of $5,550 declining by $845. “Our students count on that money, and we don’t have the resources to try to make that up,” one college financial aid officer told the New York Times in December, in response to talk such a cut might be coming.

Head Start funding would fall by more than $1 billion, forcing some combination of lower spending per child and fewer children in the program. The analysis I saw predicted more than 200,000 low-income children would lose slots in the program, although some of that may reflect the loss of funding from the expiring Recovery Act. Either way, it’s a pretty big hit. Oh, and about 55,000 instructors and teachers could lose jobs as part of the cut.

In absolute terms, the cut to the USDA’s food inspection program may seem a lot smaller – just $100 million. But that will almost certainly mean fewer inspectors, which is no small thing. As the non-partisan organization OMB Watch has noted, in recent years the number of inspectors has not kept up with the number of food producers – and “at no other regulatory agency does the size of the inspectorate need to be so closely aligned to the size of the industry it regulates.”

Title I grants, which help schools with particularly needy populations, would fall by $700 million, affecting 2,400 schools and one million children. Another 10,000 instructors and aides would likely lose their jobs, as well. This is a direct hit on low-income children and the communities in which they live…. AmeriCorps? The House Republicans would wipe out its funding entirely. And the Corporation for Public Broadcasting? Same thing.

And Benen points out the obvious:

Cohn added that these cuts, if approved, would have a “devastating impact on public services,” which is true, and I suspect is the point. What’s more, it’s also worth emphasizing that a package of cuts like this one is the very definition of a “job-killing” plan – Republicans would respond to the ongoing unemployment crisis by deliberately putting thousands of Americans out of work.

And he thinks back on those ads:

I can’t help but wonder how Republicans in competitive districts will respond when ads tell their constituents, “Representative So-and-so voted for massive tax breaks for the wealthy, right before voting to slash education spending, aid for pregnant women, and safeguards that keep our food supply safe. He said we could afford massive giveaways to billionaires, but we can’t afford student loans, better roads, and clean air.”

Republicans are convinced the public will reward them for gutting the budget, cutting services, and putting more Americans out of work. I have a hunch their confidence is misplaced.

Well, some hapless husband somewhere probably thought his wife really did want a new vacuum cleaner for Valentine’s Day.

And there’s this:

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) defended proposed Republican budget cuts to popular domestic programs Sunday as necessary to maintaining fiscal health.

“No matter how popular sounding these programs are they jeopardize our children’s future,” the House Budget Committee chairman said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Benen is not impressed:

So, let me get this straight. In order to help protect the interests of our children, we have to cut Head Start, student loans, Title I grants (which help schools with kids who live in poverty), and nutritional aid for pregnant women and women with young children.

By making these cuts, Paul Ryan believes he’s helping make children’s futures brighter.

He says this is Republican thinking in a nutshell.

And there’s this:

In a smart column today, Bruce Bartlett looks at why it will be so hard for politicians to cut government spending: because so many Americans who say they support cutting government programs don’t realize just how much they benefit from them.

Remember, for example, when a town hall attendee famously told his congressman to “keep your government hands off my Medicare”? Apparently that bewilderingly blinkered sentiment is hardly unique.

The Fiscal Times Bruce Bartlett column is here and Benen adds detail:

Bartlett relied on research from Cornell political scientist Suzanne Mettler, who reported on beneficiaries of government social programs who sincerely believe they “have not used a government social program.” For example, 53% of those who’ve received student loans don’t realize that counts. The same goes for 44% of Social Security recipients, and 40 percent of Medicare recipients.

It’s not that these folks are lying; it’s just that they don’t understand. When they think of “government social program,” they very likely think of “welfare” – the kind of aid that they’ve never sought and don’t think they’ll ever need.

And he’s reminded of this piece from Matt Taibbi, who attended a Tea Party rally over the summer:

After Palin wraps up, I race to the parking lot in search of departing Medicare-motor-scooter conservatives. I come upon an elderly couple, Janice and David Wheelock, who are fairly itching to share their views.

“I’m anti-spending and anti-government,” crows David, as scooter-bound Janice looks on. “The welfare state is out of control.”

“OK,” I say. “And what do you do for a living?”

“Me?” he says proudly. “Oh, I’m a property appraiser. Have been my whole life.”

I frown. “Are either of you on Medicare?”

Silence: Then Janice, a nice enough woman, it seems, slowly raises her hand, offering a faint smile, as if to say, you got me!

“Let me get this straight,” I say to David. “You’ve been picking up a check from the government for decades, as a tax assessor, and your wife is on Medicare. How can you complain about the welfare state?”

“Well,” he says, “there’s a lot of people on welfare who don’t deserve it. Too many people are living off the government.”

“But,” I protest, “you live off the government. And have been your whole life!”

“Yeah,” he says, “but I don’t make very much.”


The point is that congressional Republicans are desperate to make devastating, job-killing cuts to the budget, and think they’re on safe political ground because voters say they support spending cuts. GOP officials might be surprised to learn just how many Americans rely on government spending, and want to keep the benefits that apply to them.

But it is like Valentine’s Day. You give her what you think she really, really wants, because you really have been paying attention. And you get it all wrong.

And of course that means that paying attention was a bad idea in the first place. Do what your heart tells you, and what, after careful consideration, you think is best. You’re going to get hammered anyway. Or else buy the damned chocolates and hope for the best, like the Republicans.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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