“Mommy, why do birds hate us?” the twins Nancy and Michelle asked Mrs. Squirrel.
It’s a question young squirrels often ask when their parents talk about safety. Mrs. Squirrel was ready with an answer. “Birds don’t hate us,” she explained. “They don’t swoop down and kill us for fun. They’re hungry and see squirrels as food.”
Nancy looked at Michelle for a moment, then back to their mother. “Maybe so,” Nancy said. “But the squirrel gets hurt either way.”
I remembered their conversation as I read Ezra Klein’s Washington Post blog about the House Republican budget:
I don’t think Paul Ryan intended to write a budget that concentrated its cuts on the poorest Americans. Similarly, I don’t think Mitt Romney intended to write a budget that concentrated its cuts on the poorest Americans. But there’s a reason their budgets turned out so similar: The Republican Party has settled on four overlapping fiscal commitments that leave them with few other choices.
The Republican plans we’ve seen share a few basic premises. First, taxes are too high, and must be cut. Second, defense spending is too low, and should be raised. Third, major changes to entitlement programs should be passed now, but they shouldn’t affect the current generation of retirees. That would all be fine, except for the fourth premise, which is that short-term deficits are a serious threat to the country and they need to be swiftly cut.
The first three budget premises means that taxes and defense will contribute more to the deficit, and Medicare and Social Security aren’t available for quick savings. That leaves programs for the poor as the only major programs available to bear cuts. But now cuts to those programs have to pay for the deficit reduction, the increased defense spending, and the tax cuts. That means the cuts to those programs have to be really, really, really deep. The authors have no other choice.
It’s an interesting premise. Hanlon’s Razor proposes that one should “Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity.” I prefer the word “ignorance” to “stupidity,” but the point remains. When one of the twins steps on my tail while scampering around Árbol Squirrel, I assume she was looking elsewhere and didn’t notice my tail in her path.
Conversely, political science professor Scott Erb calls the House Republican budget “a direct assault on the poor by the rich.” He also calls the plan “perverse and audacious.” In short, Professor Erb alleges malice against the poor. He continues:
What makes this class war instead of a bold initiative to cut spending is that so much of the money “saved” doesn’t go to deficit reduction but instead to tax cuts. The claim is that this will grow the economy more and wealth will “trickle down,” much like the right claims happened when Reagan cut taxes.[...]
Who is right here? Would House Republicans step on the poor because Rep. Ryan and his colleagues are looking elsewhere, Klein’s four goals that leave Republicans “no other choice?” Or would stepping on the poor be an act of malice, Professor Erb’s “direct assault?”
Representative Ryan said in his press conference that his budget is “welfare reform round 2.” He added:
The 1996 welfare reform was very successful in getting toward an upward-mobile society, in getting people off of dependency and on to lives of self-sufficiency. Let’s take those principles of welfare reform that were extremely successful in getting people out of lives of dependency and back on their feet. This is a path that we believe reignites and renews the American idea. It reclaims the opportunity society with a safety net, which we do believe must exist for people who cannot help themselves, for people who are down on their luck, so they can get back on their feet. But we don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.
That argument seems more like ignorance than malice. As Huffington Post writers Arthur Delaney and Michael McAuliff explain, the statistics that Rep. Ryan cites on the success of the 1996 welfare reform program are selective and misleading. Yes, child poverty rates fell in the five years immediately after that law was passed, but the tech bubble was booming during that period. A February report by the National Poverty Center shows the number of households in extreme poverty has more than doubled since 1996, and their data show most of that increase occurred before the Great Recession began in 2008.
That deeper question is whether House Republicans would scrap their budget and start over if they read that National Poverty Center report. And I don’t think they would. I think they’d find some excuse to dismiss it, or argue their you’re-on-your-own ideology – if it were implemented fully – would solve the problem. Rising tides lifting boats and so on.
In other words, I don’t think ignorance is an excuse. But I’m not ready to leap all the way to malice. I think there’s a third option: disinterest. Every budget is a statement of priorities. For Republicans, the plight of the poor is a lower priority than lower taxes, higher defense spending, avoiding the political fallout of changes to Social Security and Medicare, and cutting the deficit. They wouldn’t hurt the poor just for fun. But if the choice comes down to the poor or the Republicans’ other priorities … the poor get hurt.
In short, Republicans are like the birds that kill and eat squirrels. Birds don’t do that for fun, or they’d kill squirrels even when the birds weren’t hungry. What’s more, a hungry bird that finds already dead meat will usually eat that rather than kill a squirrel. But if a bird is hungry and a squirrel is the only food within sight … the squirrel’s life matters less to the bird than the bird’s hunger.
Is the bird’s disinterest in the squirrel’s suffering a form of malice? A byproduct of ignorance? We could debate the morality of that at length.
But in the end, my daughter Nancy was right. The squirrel gets hurt either way.
Good day and good nuts.