The Budget Cuts: Does American Exceptionalism Begin At Home?

There has been a lot of commentary on President Obama’s speech on U.S. intervention in Libya earlier this week. Much of that commentary centered on Obama’s discussion of America’s role as a powerful moral force in the world: “To brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and – more profoundly– our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different.” And again:

Let me close by addressing what this action says about the use of America’s military power, and America’s broader leadership in the world, under my presidency. . . Sometimes, the course of history poses challenges that threaten our common humanity and our common security -– responding to natural disasters, for example; or preventing genocide and keeping the peace; ensuring regional security, and maintaining the flow of commerce. These may not be America’s problems alone, but they are important to us. They’re problems worth solving. And in these circumstances, we know that the United States, as the world’s most powerful nation, will often be called upon to help.

. . . I believe that this movement of change cannot be turned back, and that we must stand alongside those who believe in the same core principles that have guided us through many storms: our opposition to violence directed at one’s own people; our support for a set of universal rights, including the freedom for people to express themselves and choose their leaders; our support for governments that are ultimately responsive to the aspirations of the people.

Whether you agree or disagree with intervention in Libya, this was certainly the Obama that we saw during the election, the Obama of “Yes, we can.” And the political right, if anything, has sought to one-up this can-do attitude. William Kristol, in the Weekly Standard, although criticizing the administration for a muddled message in the lead-up to intervention in Libya, declared the mission would “probably succeed. . . ., and that [t]he United States really should have the backs of those fighting for freedom.” He also counseled that we shouldn’t “underestimate the capabilities of the American military.” He topped it off with a paean to optimism in America’s might: “The modern left expects the United States to lose its wars. Some on the left often seem to be rooting for American defeat. . . . [A]t their best, today’s conservatives—and the Republican party that is their vehicle—constitute the party of . . . victory. So Republicans should vote for victory in Congress . . . . After all, if we prevail in Libya—and in Afghanistan and Iraq—the victory will be America’s.”

Yet the “yes, we can” picture of the power and capability of the United States applies only to its ventures abroad. When it comes to describing U.S. power at home, a very different picture emerges from the political establishment. To paraphrase House Republican leader John Boehner’s denunciation of last year’s health care bill, the message being trumpeted is “Hell no, we can’t.” The contrast between the presentation of America’s vast capabilities overseas and its enfeebled condition at home is nowhere more stark than in the current discussion of the proposed budget cuts. No doubt Republicans, particularly House

Republicans, have taken the lead in presenting the country as teetering on the brink of disaster when domestic programs are involved. But Obama has also been complicit in this rhetoric.

In contrast to the moral terms in which Obama framed intervention in Libya, he framed his response to the GOP’s proposed cuts in economic terms. Obama agreed that cuts are necessary, but stated that he opposed “steps” that would “prompt thousands of layoffs in state or local government” or impede “core vital functions of government,” for that would “have a dampening impact on our recovery.” It’s the economy, stupid – not the morality – that matters when it comes to domestic rather than military affairs. And when it comes to domestic affairs, we just don’t have the money.

The U.S. government has the strength to get the backs of the less fortunate overseas. But at home, the world’s most powerful (not to mention, wealthiest) nation is depicted as needing to cut programs to feed, shelter, and educate its most vulnerable citizens, to heat their homes during winter, and to ensure that they receive necessary medical care. Abroad, we have the capability to be far-sighted and to protect the United States’ long-term interests. At home, although it’s clear that early childhood education is one of the best long-term investments that government can make, and although the current need for early childcare education drastically exceeds demand, we need to cut hundreds of thousands of seats from these programs. Abroad, we have the strength to intervene in a third country, while continuing to fight expensive wars (or post-wars) in two others. At home, 22% of all our children and 35% of our African American children are being raised in poverty – the highest rates among wealthy, industrialized countries. These rates are not simply the inevitable product of the market: other countries’ poverty rates are higher than our own before their government programs kick in. Our higher actual poverty rates exceed other wealthy countries due to our feeble ambitions for our social welfare programs, in contrast to other countries’ far more robust efforts. Abroad, we are moral leaders, refusing to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. At home, if our budget is taken on moral terms – as it should be – we turn a blind eye to the suffering of our own citizens.

As Jonathan Weiler points out, the U.S. military budget is an estimated seven times more than China’s, the country with the second-largest military budget. Overall, the price tag for our military in fiscal year 2011 is more than $700 billion, and the true amount of military-related spending, according to Weiler, likely puts the price tag at perhaps a trillion dollars a year. It may be that the wealthiest nation in the world can afford this military budget. But it makes no sense then to plead poverty when it comes to cutting programs necessary to preserve decent lives for its own citizens. This is particularly the case in such a tough job market. Juxtaposing the discussion of American might abroad with American poverty at home makes it clear that the issue is political will, not lack of wealth.

And, as long as we’re putting the pieces of the puzzle together rather than looking at them separately, let’s recognize too that we can’t talk about the morality of government spending without talking about the morality of its revenue raising. It is true that the federal budget is constrained by the falling income of many Americans. But this is only because tax increases and loophole closings have been completely taken off the political table. Obama certainly put up disappointingly-little resistance to allowing the renewal of the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy, which would have increased the federal coffers by $32 billion in 2011 alone. Yet the Republican leadership in Washington bears the brunt of the blame for the renewal of these cuts, and for snuffing all talk of tax increases.

And both parties bear the blame for a political system in which wealthy corporations and financial institutions in the United States are earning money hand over fist while paying far from their fair share of government. Last week, the New York Times reported that General Electric, the nation’s largest corporation, reported worldwide profits of $14.2 billion, $5.1 billion of which came from its U.S. operations. Yet it paid no taxes whatsoever in the United States. In fact, it claimed a tax benefit of $3.2 billion under rules that were the product of its extensive lobbying. G.E. may be the most egregious example, but it is only one example in a country that has allowed the rich to skew the rules in its favor, while pervasively ignoring the interests of the poor and, increasingly, of the dwindling middle class.

Obama is right that the United States should not turn a blind eye to the suffering of human beings, or to its responsibilities to others. And that it should support governments that are responsive to the aspirations of their citizens. There’s no better place to start than right here at home.

Thanks to Jonathan Weiler’s excellent piece, titled Crank Up the War Machine, in The Independent, for spurring my thoughts on this issue.

This is my last post as guest blogger for Concurring Opinions.  I thank the regular authors, particularly Solangel Maldonado and Dan Solove for the opportunity.

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4 Responses

  1. cainandtoddbenson says:

    “American Exceptionalism”. Art, image.

  2. Frank Pasquale says:

    Thank you for a great visit. I completely agree with your perspective. We are in a fiscal mess largely because of tax giveaways to the rich, financial industry chicanery, and endless war, as this chart helps show:

    I think that if anyone wants to see where these trends are leading to, they might want to take a look at Gary Shteyngart’s latest novel, or listen to his interview with Doug Henwood on the Behind the News radio show, the 9/23 show available here:

  3. I agree with your points about the current US Administration’s policy, and appreciate your raising them so bluntly, but I wonder how exceptional it really is. It seems like David Cameron’s UK (and indeed the whole Parliament that voted overwhelmingly to back the Libyan intervention) suffers from a similarly divided self. And perhaps the Sarkozy government as well. And the role of oil may be a complicating factor. As a bunch of pundits wondered on BBC’s Dateline last week, would the allies intervening in Libya — pretty much all of whom are cutting public-service budgets — give (oil-poor) Syria a pass?

  4. Orin Kerr says:

    Maxine, I don’t think the comparison here really works.

    First, I don’t see a inconsistency in using optimistic rhetoric in one context and pessimistic rhetoric elsewhere. Government doesn’t either “work” or “not work.” Different government policies raise very different concerns: We might be very optimistic about some types of government intervention but very pessimistic about other types of government intervention.

    I think the comparison you’re drawing here is especially problematic because the kind of costs implicated by the kind of domestic spending you favor would seem to be orders of magnitude greater — and would last orders of magnitude longer in time — than the brief intervention in Libya. Given those real differences, I don’t think it’s surprising that the terms of the debate on those policies are quite different.

    Of course, it may be that you favor a set of policies and you personally see your support as a moral question, and you want others to see those policies as a moral question, as well, in the hope that they will then support the same policies you support. But if so, I would think that’s an argument best made directly. I suspect it won’t persuade those who don’t already agree with you to make the argument as one of consistency between government programs abroad and at home.