Straw Men Line Up at Treasury Pay Window

Much has been said already about President Obama and his favorite rhetorical device in speeches, the Straw Man, or false argument.  His speech on the deficit, hastily pulled together to attack the plan offered by Representative Ryan, has a long line of them.

In his deficit speech on Wednesday, President Obama said:

We don’t have to choose between a future of spiraling debt and one where we forfeit our investment in our people and our country.

Where has anyone asked that we ‘forfeit our investment in our people’ by trying to run the federal government with sound fiscal policy?  He is absolutely right about this particular point — we don’t have to choose a future of spiraling debt.  In fact, continuing to accumulate growing debt will be the fastest way to lose the ‘investment’ we have made in this country.  But neither must we continue to spend the amounts he wants in order to meet the needs of our people.

Later in the speech the President says:
We’re a nation that built a railroad across a continent and brought light to communities shrouded in darkness.  We sent a generation to college on the GI Bill and we saved millions of seniors from poverty with Social Security and Medicare.  We have led the world in scientific research and technological breakthroughs that have transformed millions of lives.  That’s who we are.  This is the America that I know.

The President’s remarks make it seem that government “investment” was the source of our greatness in the past and is the answer to our future, and that any attempts to lower government spending as Representative Ryan proposes is not ‘courageous’ or ‘serious.’  In his examples above, however, the President completely glosses over the point the railroads were built largely with private capital, not government funds; the majority of electrical power distribution was also done with private investment.  In addition, the largest share of research and development funds in this country up until the explosive growth of federal spending in the 1970s and beyond, was also done with private funds.  An private capital, in the form of ownership in companies with shareholders who benefitted from the fruits of the enterprises like railroads, electrical companies and automobile companies, made this a very prosperous nation.  That is ‘who we are’ — capitalists and entrepreneurs most able to find the next big thing with minimal government involvement.  Think of companies like Apple and Microsoft –they became successful without government “investment” and management.

In fact, one could easily make the argument that our pace of innovation and discovery has slowed as we collectively became more dependent on government funding for “green energy” and other government priorities, rather than pursuing market driven products which serve the public good–but I’ll leave that argument for another day.

When the President made reference in his speech to the notion that Chinese “companies” are making investments in solar engergy and the like, he similarly glosses over the fact that most of these companies are owned by the Chinese government, and that is “who they are.”

In his speech, and in remarks since the speech, the President has frequently referred to the straw man that we face a choice between “giving rich companies tax breaks and paying for medical care” or other support from the government for the truly needy– and he continually presents this as a choice the Republicans are seeking to force on the country.  Again, this is a false choice and not a very accurate one.

When the tax code does not collect a tax, it is not ‘giving’ a company anything — it is allowing the company to keep what it already has.  Allowing the company to keep more of its earnings benefits the country by keeping workers employed and providing income to those who might own shares in the company through mutual funds, retirement plans and other means.

Taxes must first come from the wealth created by an individual or company.  That money does not belong to the government to ‘give’ to anyone. Presenting these false choices of the Treasury either giving money to rich corporations/individuals or people in need is the worst kind of deceit.

There isn’t a choice between doing things that enable a prosperous economy and helping those in need — this isn’t an either or proposition.  The nation can, in fact, do both until the size and nature of ‘helping those in need’ through the use of taxes collected from the nation dwarfs the ability of the underlying economy to support it.  The President’s reference to the Republicans ‘forcing 50 million people to lose their health insurance’ is an example.  Where does anyone see the requirement for the federal government to provide health insurance to one-sixth of our people in our Constitution?  Were we not able to prosper as a nation for the past 234 years without doing this before?  How did this, along with providing free meals to nearly one in five of our school age children suddenly become a national requirement?

Allowing the debate to be framed in these false choices will never allow us to get control of our country’s fiscal health. If the sole purpose of the federal government is to allocate all money in the economy to those areas that are ‘in need’, there will never be a shortage of things to ‘invest in.’  There will always be a group or faction that thinks there is something more worthy and noble to redistribute money for than ‘rich people’ or ‘big corporations.’

But our federal government does not exist for the purpose of re-distributing the nation’s wealth according to the opinions and directives of the Executive Branch.  Our founders put together a very clear and concise framework for limited government in our Constitution.  Following those principles will enable us to control the size and cost of the federal government and allow us as individuals to work together in our communities, churches and other social organizations to care for those truly in need in a voluntary way.

Thomas Jefferson reportedly wrote, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield, and government to gain ground.”  President Obama wants to prove that axiom correct by urging us to look to the federal government as the main source of “investment in our people.”  In so doing, he will grow the size of the government’s impact to our economy so that well over one of every four dollars is spent by the government, not individuals–and the majority of those dollars will simply be given to other individuals judged more ‘in need’ than those who first earned the money.

The facts are as simple as they are stark.  We are borrowing 4 out of every 10 dollars the federal government is spending today, and the President’s “plan” to reduce spending only trims about one third of the additional debt estimated in his own budget from two months ago.  In short his plan is inadequate and full of danger for the future of our country.