GUEST COMMENTARY: Our nation, on its knees

Monday, December 31, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST

My favorite part of the budget negotiations is when a glum-looking John Boehner — backed by the vulpine Eric Cantor, eyes blazing — steps in from of the cameras and accuses Barack Obama of “not negotiating in good faith.” And he does it with a straight face.

Apparently, good faith negotiation to a Republican consists of demanding unconditional surrender and an apology for disagreeing in the first place. This qualifies as theater of the absurd. Republicans can’t even negotiate in good faith with each other, for crying out loud, let alone with the president of the United States.

I had high hopes. I admit it. The economy was starting to revive, we had beaten the barbarians back from the gates of the city in the election and Mr. Obama seemed informed by a new resolve.

I was encouraged by Obama’s tough talk at the onset of the budget negotiations. He was prepared to cut the size of government and gradually reduce Social Security benefits through a complicated formula, yes. But he was also going to let tax rates rise by a few percentage points on income of more than $250,000 to even things out.

That wasn’t good enough for the Republicans. They kept holding out for no rate hikes on the rich, instead leaning heavily on taking money and benefits from the sick and the disabled to balance the budget.

Then Obama offered to raise the tax threshold to incomes of $400,000 or more.

“Oh no,” I said to myself. “He’s starting to negotiate with himself again. He always does that and he always loses.”

But then John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of House, started to negotiate with himself too. He offered to accept a tax rise for incomes of $1 million or more.

This, of course, was unacceptable to Democrats but, as it turned out, the Republican knuckle-draggers in the House wouldn’t go along either.

So, at this writing, there we are, on the very edge of the fiscal cliff with no easy way back. (Republican conservatives have an ancient Greek warrior streak in them. They stake out a position, then burn the boats they came in.)

One thing the Republicans were able to agree on was to cut out the cuts in military spending that were coming as part of the cliff deal and apply them to other spending in the budget — frills like subsidies for higher education, public housing for the poor, the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

As New York Times columnist Eduardo Porter put it: “Without such spending, the government becomes little more than a heavily armed pension plan with a health insurer on the side.” And not a very good insurer at that.

Every once in a while, the question arises of whether the United States of America constitutes “the greatest country in the world.” Most Americans, say: “Sure we are.”


I’ve always had my doubts about that. Whenever international rankings of nations come out — categories like infant mortality, educational achievement, even overall “quality of life” — the U.S. seldom cracks the top ten.

The one place where we have absolute, undisputed supremacy is the percentage of our people who are locked up. With just 5 percent of the world’s population, we’ve got 25 percent of the planet’s prisoners. We rank No. 1 in this regard, well ahead of the much-larger China, which also happens to be a police state, and Russia, where they put singers in jail for making fun of Vladimir Putin.

Those just don’t seem like the kind of statistics the greatest country on earth should generate.

Nor would it put up with a political system where a determined group of informationally challenged zealots could bring the nation to its knees on any pretext that struck its fancy.

We’re a pretty good country — don’t misunderstand me. I’m glad I live here. But the greatest on earth?

I’d like a second opinion.

Donald Kaul is a columnist for Otherwords. He has been on break from writing following a heart attack in July.

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Mike Martin December 31, 2012 | 1:01 p.m.

I'm not seeing solutions to the problems Mr. Kaul describes through his partisan lens, a disappointing aspect of a column I had hoped would be more insightful.

From the fiscal cliff to the prison population, problems the US faces are party-agnostic. It's simplistic and wrong-headed to blame just Republicans or just Democrats.

Instead, the fault lies in a system of special interests and big bucks that blurs our populist roots with sound bites, ad spending, robo-calls, and other campaign tomfoolery.

Far too many people will vote for the person with the greatest number of empty-headed television ads before they will vote for the person with the most well-developed and thoughtful ideas, regardless of party affiliation.

You can actually buy an election, therefore, if you have enough cash.

The result is that a cadre of clowns we sent in from all political parties has seized control of an important part of our beloved Country -- our government.

To prove they matter, these politicians make our lives miserable a few times a year as they stand at microphones (or sit for endless interviews) like self-important celebrities trying to save us from the brink of some "cliff" -- fiscal, annual budget, debt ceiling, whatever.

It's like a bad replay of the Mayan calendar, with the world as we know it fixing to end, now virtually every few months.

Given these recurring fiascoes, I'd much rather have the government New York Times columnist Eduardo Porter describes: "little more than a heavily armed pension plan with a health insurer on the side."

As it is, we have a government with its hands in everything, driving up the cost of everything, and instead of protecting and preserving the "American Dream," gobbling it up in ever-larger bites.

Too bad Mr. Kaul blames all this on one party. It takes at least two to tango on Capitol Hill -- or rather fiddle, while the shining city burns.

It's up to us to make sure it doesn't burn. And as the citizens of Columbia have recently proven in two important cases -- Ward gerrymandering and EEZ/blight -- they don't call us the greatest nation on Earth for nothing.

When we want to get it done, we get it done. It's our politicians who fiddle.

(Report Comment)
Skip Yates January 1, 2013 | 5:04 a.m.

Well said, Mr. Martin......

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