Rappelling Down the Fiscal Cliff: A Proposed How-to Guide for Progressives

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MtRushmoreRappellBy Steven Jonas, MD. Republished from The Greanville Post.

Photo: Rappelling Lincoln – Mount Rushmore ca. 1936 – from tumblr

The United States has a serious Federal debt/deficit problem, and it is important for progressives to recognize that fact. There is no danger of the United States, with its enormous productive power and its enormous borrowing power, “becoming Greece” at any time in the foreseeable future. But the two problems are important, and must be dealt, not for the reasons the “small government” GOPers give, but for two very real ones: interest payments are taking up an ever-increasing portion of total Federal expenditures, and less and less money is available for national domestic spending, whether it be for infrastructure, education, research, or, let’s say, the National Weather Service and the Federal Aviation Administration. (Just wait for some Republican to propose that the FAA be given just enough funds to put every other flight under Air Traffic Control and for the NWS get along with being able to track every other hurricane. After all, Romney proposed a major defunding of FEMA.) That the current problem is largely the result of George W. Bush’s unpaid-for wars and Medicare expansion, and his tax cuts for his “you are my base” rich folks, needs to receive even more mention.

The GOP actually just loves “big government” when it comes to, for example, the criminal enforcement of religious determinism in the outcome of pregnancy and loves big spending on the military, the prison-industrial complex, and etc. But they do want to use this manufactured crisis to pursue Grover Norquist’s true agenda (1): “shrinking the Federal government [that is the parts they don’t like] to the size of a bathtub and then drowning it in the bathtub.” Their immediate targets are, of course, those announced by Romney/Ryan: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Social Security happens to be funded completely outside of the Federal annual budget and can be fixed easily by, for example, raising the upper income limit on payments-in. Medicare and Medicaid do pose threats to Federal spending capabilities, but only because a) health care is so expensive in the United States and b) precisely because of the existence of Medicare, spending is so heavily tilted towards the elderly when the same services if provided to people at a younger age could serve to, among other things, reduce the costs of care when they get older. This situation, however, cannot be rectified without a major overhaul of the US health care delivery system (as in single-payer), but that is not going to happen anytime soon. So where do we go from here, in a way that makes sense for the whole of the American people.

We hear a lot about “Simpson-Bowles,” actually a failure, which happened to focus heavily on major reductions in the paid-for-benefits programs (mis-named “entitlements”), Social Security and Medicare, and Medicaid. (The latter is actually as much a subsidy for the health care system as it is a health care benefit for the poor, because without it hospital emergency services would be even more overburdened with the un-insured than they are now). Interestingly enough, Erskine Bowles is an old right-wing, DLC, Democrat, a former banker who was once Mr. DLC-er himself, Bill Clinton’s, Chief of Staff. The chief claim to fame of Alan Simpson, a former far-right wing GOP Senator from Wyoming, is that he was the mentor of Dick Cheney. And boy do they get publicity, as the pressure builds and builds to use the “fiscal cliff” to indeed start taking aim at the paid-for-benefit programs, even, apparently, reaching to the White House. But there is another way, and it is what progressives should be rallying around.

What has received virtually no publicity (although it has received some very nice endorsements, including one from the aforementioned Bill Clinton, see the document on the web) is the “Peoples’ Budget,” first released in 2011 (2). It was produced by the Congressional Progressive Caucus under the leadership of Cong. Raul Grijalva of Arizona and supported by other Congressional figures like Sen. Bernie Sanders and presumably the newly re-elected Cong. Alan Grayson. The US is fortunate as compared with many other advanced capitalist countries that came a cropper during the 2007-2009 blow-up of finance capitalism in that it has some very deep pockets from which all kinds of money can be drawn (given the political will). And many of those pockets would be dug into with some form of the following measures (many of which appear in the People’s Budget, but some of which have been drawn from other sources over the years)

1. Raise personal income taxes on the rich and raise the collected taxes on the large corporations, embracing “tax and spend” under the slogan “Tax the rich; spend for the Nation.” (On paper, US corporate tax rates rank fairly high; however as collected [the corporations employing many accountants] they rank rather low.)

2. Close all the tax loopholes for the same parties. (We are not talking about the charitable deductions and mortgage interest payments here, of course. But such measures would put lots of accountants out of work.)

3. Restrict the export of capital so that employment and the tax base here could expand.

4. Tax overseas profits.

5. Create a separate national capital expenditure budget like the state and localities have, funded by specific bonding authority. This would take all infrastructure spending off the Federal budget, and allow the nation to really deal with its rapidly deteriorating roads, railroads, mass transit, water supply, electrical grid, and internet systems.

6. End the so-called “drug war” which commits billions of dollars annually to law enforcement and imprisonment of non-violent “drug offenders,” which would significantly reduce the size of the US prison-industrial complex (highest number of incarcerated people in the world, by proportion overwhelmingly non-white) and tax the sale of the formerly “illicit” drugs (a potential biggie).

7. Create a Medicare-for-all/single-payer health care financing system that would save several hundred billion dollars per year in administrative costs.

8. End the subsidies for the agribusiness and the extractive industries.

9. Make massive cuts in military spending (while providing jobs in a re-industrialized United States for the 100s of thousands of displaced workers), beginning with the ending of the current US foreign wars and going on to a drawdown of the massive overseas military base system.

10. Institute a transaction tax on securities trades (3), as France has just done for certain types of transactions. (This one alone, at say 1%, could bring in huge amounts of revenue.)

It is essential in the present fight over how to deal with the “fiscal cliff or slope” that progressives come up with more than “tax the rich” and “don’t touch Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.” Some form of this aggressive approach is what progressives need to be undertaking, loudly and clearly. And it is time for people like our friends at MSNBC to begin to provide a forum for the Congressional Progressive Caucus to be heard.


Senior Greanville Post editor Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) and author/co-author/editor/co-editor of over 30 books. In addition to being a columnist for BuzzFlash/Truthout (http://www.buzzflash.com, http://www.truth-out.org/), he is the Managing Editor of and a Contributing Author to TPJmagazine.net.


1.       Jonas, S., “Grover Norquist’s Wet Dream,” Published on BuzzFlash@Truthout (http://blog.buzzflash.com/node/12601), April 15, 2011. Revised, April 20, 2011, for http://www.opednews.com/articles/Grover-Norquist-s-Wet-Drea-by-Steven-Jonas-110707-971.html, further revision, Dec. 10, 2012

2.       The People’s Budget of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (http://cpc.grijalva.house.gov/index.cfm?sectionid=70&sectiontree=5,70).

3.       “The Financial Transaction Tax,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Financial_transaction_tax.

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