I just received a “Dear Neighbor” letter from Jim Watson, my representative to the Illinois House of Representatives. He starts right off deploring the disastrous financial problems of our state. The budget crisis in Illinois is far worse than at the federal level: The state has stopped paying what it owes to school districts, hospitals and businesses. Generations of political leaders in Illinois have spent more money than the state brought in.
Unlike the extraordinary corruption exhibited by a series of governors, this was an ordinary form of daily corruption: let someone else pay much later, when we are out of office. Watson says that “we must put an end to the culture of spending in Illinois.”
The rest of his letter then outlines five unsuccessful bills that Watson sponsored, each of which would reduce the state’s revenue and thus make the budget crisis worse. He offers no plan to offset these reductions with new sources of revenue.
I don’t think that Watson is a hypocrite for complaining about the budget and then advocating tax cuts. In fact, Watson is one of the few Republicans in Illinois who has been willing to discuss a tax increase, a necessary step to deal with the exploding state debt. Watson’s contradictory positions simply illustrate the great difficulty that politicians face in dealing with out-of-control government spending.
When conservative Republicans controlled Washington under George Bush, they spent government money on their pet projects with little regard for the long-term budgetary consequences. Now Republicans at the national level have made the deficit one of their major points of attack against the Democrats in preparation for the November elections.
Republican concern about the deficit is loudest when they confront Democratic policies, such as the recent extensions of jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed, which only a handful of Republicans supported.
When they advocate extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, Republicans are silent about the deficit.
It’s clear that conservatives prefer to give money to the deserving wealthy, rather than the undeserving unemployed. At least Watson’s tax cut proposals for Illinois were targeted at lower-income homeowners and seniors.
Politicians love to brag about bringing home the bacon, helping their constituents financially with jobs, tax breaks, programs, construction projects and other forms of government spending. They shy away from anything to do with real cuts in spending, even in a crisis – Illinois legislators, both Democratic and Republican, have refused to make any decisions about budget cuts or new taxes, punting the whole problem to Gov. Pat Quinn, so he can take the blame.
Despite the Congressional Republican shouting about Obama’s deficits, they offer no plans for balancing the budget if they take control in Washington. Like Watson and other local Republicans, their budget-cutting propaganda lacks one key element – specific ideas about what to cut.
Well, if the politicians are too cowardly to take on the toughest issues, we’ll just have to do it ourselves. So here is my financial castor oil for federal and state government:
- Cut defense spending. The U.S. currently outspends the rest of the world in military support. Get ready to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan. No futuristic weapons systems. No new generations of airplanes or destroyers.
- Streamline our intelligence services. Wikipedia lists 21 separate intelligence agencies.
- Push Social Security retirement age back one year (ouch, that hurts me, too).
- Raise the amount of income taxed for Social Security from $106,800 to $120,000.
- Eliminate the recent tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, restoring the tax rates to their level when Ronald Reagan was president.
- Cut farm subsidies to the agricultural giants, but not to family farms.
- Don’t build new roads or bridges unless there is a traffic crisis. But maintain our current infrastructure.
- Don’t cut any funding of our educational system.
- Hire half as many private consultants in every government department.
It’s not enough, but it’s a start.
Mr. Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (Palgrave, 2004) and Shanghai-Geschichten: Die jüdische Flucht nach China (Berlin: Hentrich und Hentrich, 2007).