Fact-Checking the "PRT Boondoggle" Blog
A project of the PRT NewsCenter

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

What it's all about

Across the United States today you're going to go vote. Maybe you've already voted by mail.

Judging by what they choose to write about most of the time, some want you to believe this election is mostly about stopping personal rapid transit (and, by inference, perpetuating light rail transit). This posting serves as a reminder of what today is really about.

How you vote in this election will determine whether we will protect the Constitution and the future of our republic. It's a question not of whether we will commute to work in big train or a small pod (if it were, why wasn't PRT in the Resmuglican National Committee 2004 platform?), but rather of putting an end to one-party government and the Imperial Presidency. So, vote for candidates like Patty Wetterling, Amy Klobuchar, Colleen Rowley and Wendy Wilde because they are going to take back Congress for We The People and demand accountability from the White House. Not because a cartoonist says their opponents don't like trains.

Few state the choice as clearly as the venerable liberal policy wonk
Walt Williams, professor emeritus at The Evans School in Seattle:

Time to protect Constitution

Walter Williams
Guest Columnist

My main message today is to fear for our country. America faces the gravest of threats in the postwar era to both the federal government's long-run fiscal solvency and the living standards of the broad American middle class.

At the heart of the nation's fiscal and financial woes are George W. Bush's tax and budget policies. In the four decades that I have watched domestic policymaking, no other president's major policies have produced such a high level of harmful results.

Making matters worse is that the nation's main institutions of government are broken. The nation is facing a crisis of governance in the most profound terms. These broken institutions of government must be repaired before these crushing fiscal and financial problems can be attacked, and time is running out.

Bush's major fiscal policies and his efforts to increase presidential power at any cost have been instrumental in turning a dangerous environment into a catastrophic one that can overwhelm the nation's economic and political systems. Be clear, this crisis of governance threatens the Constitution itself.

Both the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts featured reductions in the top tax rates that disproportionately benefited those with the highest incomes.

The Bush administration argued that the tax cuts over time would greatly increase federal tax receipts so as to reduce the actual revenue loss from the tax cut. That proved to be false.

Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton all used tight caps to hold down budget outlays. George W. Bush abandoned them, and costs rose faster than at any time since the 1960s.

Bush's new Medicare prescription drug program seems certain to be a super budget-buster over time. It adds an estimated $8.1 trillion (note: a trillion is a thousand billion) over 75 years to the federal government's unfunded liabilities. That's a mind-bogglingly huge amount.

What was the result of Bush's policies? There was good economic growth over five years, but the growth rate in tax receipts fell well below it while the growth rate in budget spending outran that of the economy. Massive budget deficits were the order of the day. And it came to pass that the federal debt of $5.6 trillion at the start of the Bush presidency skyrocketed to $8.3 trillion, greatly increasing interest payments by the federal government.

These huge increases in the national debt and the government's unfunded liabilities could not have come at a worse time as the oldest of the huge baby-boomer generation near retirement age. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former Congressional Budget Office director and Bush White House economist, observed that "the long-term outlook is such a deep well of sorrow."

The U.S. has moved from the pink of fiscal good health in the early postwar years to intensive care in the Bush presidency. His tax and budget policies are central factors in the decline of the federal government's fiscal health to the worst level since the Great Depression.

A second deleterious result of Bush's tax and budget policies is that it is much harder for the broad American middle class to maintain its living standard over time. This group and those below it (roughly the lowest 20 percent of the income distribution) now include 80 to 90 percent of the population.

At the base of the problem is that productivity growth is no longer increasing real income growth per capita to the extent it did in the past. In the early post-World War II years, the linkage between high productivity and real wage growth was in lock step, but no more.

Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson wrote: "From 1947 through 1973, American productivity rose by a whopping 104 percent, and median family income rose by the very same 104 percent." Since 1973 productivity gains have outpaced median family income by 3 to 1. For the bottom 90 percent of the American work force, work just doesn't pay or provide security, as it used to do.

Despite strong economic growth and high productivity, the Bush years have produced little income growth except at the top. Between 2001 and 2005, real median household income fell 0.5 percent while productivity increased 14 percent. In 2004, the average real income of the top 1 percent of the income distribution rose eight times faster than that of the rest of the population -- over 12 percent as compared with 1.5 percent.

Bush said in mid-August that "things are good for American workers." The New York Times editorial writers observed: "This comment is preposterous." It is. Never have the fruits of strong economic and productivity growth bypassed so many workers on its way to the highest earners. Is it any wonder that Americans strongly believe the economy is doing badly?

Bush's failed tax and budget policies have imperiled the living standard over time of the bulk of the nation's population. The broad American middle class that grew and prospered in the first quarter century after World War II is under siege as the American Dream becomes a memory.

In their 2006 book "The Broken Branch," the highly respected congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein spell out why Congress no longer works. Although they stress that the problems started before Bush's Republican-controlled government came to power, there has been massive institutional damage to the two branches during the Bush presidency.

Nothing marks the difference between the Bush presidency and those of his postwar predecessors as much as the Republican leaders in Congress serving as officers and the remaining Republicans becoming grunts in the president's army.

Republican congressional leaders meekly accepted this subservient role. But they were ruthless in putting down opposition by Democrats or suspect backbench Republicans.

The Republican-controlled Congress no longer checked the president when he encroached on its legislative function that had been set out by the framers of the Constitution as its primary task. In the Bush presidency, Congress ceased to be an independent branch willing and able to restrain the executive branch when necessary.

Mann and Ornstein are deeply pessimistic: "President Bush and his congressional leaders found ways (for) bending the rules, precedents, and norms of legislative behavior in ways that left the institution in tatters. The country and its enduring constitutional pact should not and cannot, endure a broken branch for long."

The executive branch is broken, too. Readers may question this claim when Bush has dominated Congress and had great success in pushing through his policies. But the presidency is broken in a different way from Congress in being too powerful.

Vice President Dick Cheney believed that executive power had been lost in the Nixon administration and never restored. His efforts to expand that power led to the type of leader the framers most feared -- an all-powerful president like King George III.

In the American constitutional structure that derives its strength from the continuing power balance among the branches in a well-integrated system, a president with too much power is the most dangerous of breakdowns.

These are extraordinary times. The system-threatening problems are too dangerous for politicians and the public to see them as politics as usual. Only with the restoration of viable institutions can the White House and Congress determine the nation's most serious threats and hammer out the bipartisan compromises needed to confront them. To begin by setting out policy solutions, however realistic, gets the horse before the cart.

The nation's most threatening fiscal and financial problems will continue to fester in the polarized political environment until America's two broken institutions are restored to working order. Unfortunately, there is no easy solution.

But the overriding problem can be pinpointed: America's political leaders by undermining the institutions of government have broken the legislative and executive branches, resulting in a level of incompetent governance not seen in the postwar era.

The path back starts with American voters. They must recognize the depth of the institutional breakdown and ensuing incompetent governance as well as direct threats these pose to them.

Recall Mann and Ornstein's statement that "the country and its enduring constitutional pact should not and cannot, endure a broken branch for long."

Second, the voters must accept their responsibility in the political system because the framers of the Constitution cast the people as the central actors. The long first sentence in the Constitution -- its entire Preamble made clear that it is the people's Constitution (the five capitalized words were in the original document): "WE THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

This Constitution and the government it established belong to all of us. The elected officials in Washington from the president on down are our representatives and expected to act in our best interests.

Thus, America's citizens bear the first responsibility to protect and uphold our Constitution. Go for it.
The Evans School happens to be this reporter's alma mater. And in fact, Williams is the one who first advised that I ought to research something called PRT, and supervised my subsequent Masters project. But don't let that influence your vote in any way!

Now get out there and vote!

Related: Election season (11/2)

Also today: Talking point gets twained: Reports of EDICT demise greatly exaggerated

Ken Avidor is a quadruped that lives in big rivers like the Amazon

No comments: