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Wednesday, May 21, 2003
Thomas Frank is frequently wrong, but he is just as frequently right. (Like Christopher Hitchens, but with less pride in being an asshole, and less self-righteousness--er, although those two things may be the same.) And while examples of the former, especially an article in Harper's a few years ago about "ironic" music, can be painfully egregious, his cover story in this month's Harper's, "Get Rich or Get Out: Attempted Robbery With a Loaded Federal Budget," is unquestionably the latter. So goes Thomas Frank--he seemed a bit scattershot and shrill at times in his last book, One Market Under God, but the chapter on cultural studies is the definitive takedown of that particular bastard genre, and it's hard not to at least respect someone who attempts to engage with the market by seeking to understand its actors as fully as possible by being proficient in economics, scouring management texts, etc.

At any rate, this one's a doozy, and I am going to go so far as to type up the first section to entice you all to buy it, since it seems to end up being me but smarter and better-written and in Harper's.


FRANK: The Bush Administration's proposed budget for 2004 fills five phone book-size volumes; it is 2,866 pages long. The list of authors alone runs to hundreds of names, arranged alphabetically, occupying four pages of four columns each. The UPS man who delivered my copy had to carry it on his shoulder, puffing as he climbed three flights of stairs. When he plunked it down on the floor of my apartment, the dishes rattled in the cupboard.

The five-volume budget set includes a book of precise details in microscopic type, a book of tables showing how much was spent on the various programs over the years, a book of hints for unlucky staffers who have been assigned to think about matters budgetary, and a main volume--a reader-friendly book featuring a continuous prose narrative, full-color pictures of your government in action, items of interest set off in attractively typeset boxes, and a reassuring abundance of the familiar phrases of bureaucracy: "homeland," "stewardship," "caregiver." "Transition" gets used a lot as a verb.

I don't have too much of a problem with the budget's desk-crushing backup volumes. I find it kind of interesting to read seven pages of tables detailing highway expenditures from 1940 to the present. [nerd!!!! -ed] It's the part of the budget I'm supposed to like that I really can't stand.

Let me upgrade that remark: The 2004 budget is toxic. It is an epic of distortion and evasion and contradiction and misleading rhetorical ploys. The object of this malodorous epic is to outline the Bush Administration's plan for plunging the nation from surplus into deficit and to cast the blame for the ensuing disaster on the very people--the retired, the sick, the poor--who will feel the brunt of its effects. Whether Congress alters this budget, reduces its tax cuts, or rejects it altogether is beside the point. The document we will have always with us, an indelible reminder of what the Bush team would do if they possibly could.

There is nothing inherently wrong with deficits, even massive ones, as a tool of state policy. In wars and recessions it is right and even proper for the federal government to spend more than it takes in, so as to ensure that resources continue to flow to consumer and to those hardest hit, and to stimulate the economy. The 2004 budget is not concerned with any of that. Here war and recession are merely pretexts for getting the crudest social trends of the last twenty years moving again. This deficit is designed to enrich those at the very top of the social pyramid while cutting services for those lower down. This is not cyclical Keynesianism. This is not a helpful or even a merely benign program of deficit spending. It is a blueprint for sabotage. It is an instruction manual for how to power up a complicated machine and dash it headlong into a stone wall.

After which the president will turn to us and say, "See? I told you big government doesn't work."


And there's lots more good stuff after that, like when he critiques the idea of a businessman making a good political leader by pointing out that "management theory holds government to be a uniquely depraved social actor." Mmmm.

So yes, I tend to think that Frank hit this one out of the ballpark, and it would be a nice theme to see Democrats picking up on. Of course, underfunding and crippling agencies until the lose their mandate is a classic political technique (which has worked in a very weird way at the FCC, but that's a case study for another time), but if you're going to pretend like you're helping the agencies, you're gonna take some political shots, and it's up to our representatives (and erstwhile candidates) to deliver those, albeit in a tone that always avoids conspiracy theory. (You could wheel out the ol' "Lipstick on a pig" quote, if you'd like.) Let's not be unclear about the fact that the current administration is trying to run some agencies (State especially) into the ground in the same way, say, Reagan wanted to kill the EPA (James Watt) and the NEA. And these are services--like veterans' benefits, from which they wanted to cut US$25billion--that are the essence of what most citizens look to government to provide. So we should at least be honest in what we're doing.

He goes on to give some quotes from the budget summary where they basically just seem to be ripping on their own government--"here the White House can be seen confession, on behalf of previous administrations and, indeed, the entire federal workforce, to anything you care to think of"--which are just astounding.

"Federal agencies," for example, are said to be so out of touch that they have "not managed themselves well enough to know whether they had the right people with the right skills to do their work." Among federal workers "pay and performance are generally unrelated," which is apparently not a problem in the private sector.

Ouch. Anyway, it ties into that whole Arendt thing I've been going off on about respecting the civil service, their neutrality and their institutional knowledge. It makes a certain amount of sense, I suppose, for the administration to present their budget in these political terms, but I've written budget summaries before, and even when I did it for a company about to go under, there was nothing as skewed as this. The budget is, essentially, numbers, and for the spin to extend so far as to claim to be rehabilitating agencies intended to be gutted, it illustrates the need for there to be somewhere an enterprising citizen can go for straight facts. The flip side to an open government is that the government is much more open with its ambitions.